Women’s Movement In Iskcon, Krishna Kirti Prabhu

Language, Ideology, and the Women’s Movement in ISKCON

Although it is widely acknowledged within and without ISKCON that ISKCON has an influential women’s movement, the degree to which it resembles other women’s movements outside of ISKCON, particularly in the West, has been hotly debated. Rather, it is more correct to say that debate on this issue has generally been suppressed. In response to concerns that feminism was being promoted in ISKCON, one member of ISKCON’s women’s movement flatly countered, “I . . . strongly object to being labeled a ‘feminist’”{1} The possibility would not be entertained, no further discussion ensued. But because ISKCON’s membership is largely composed of people who are culturally Western and because ISKCON exists within Western Civilization and interacts with it, to foreclose discussion on the extent to which Western culture influences ISKCON is perhaps a disingenuous response to a legitimate concern.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, women’s movements have been very influential in the West. At the onset of the 21st century, ISKCON has also been significantly transformed from the inside by its own women’s movement, which has actively and determinedly asserted economic, social, legal and political rights for women in ISKCON. Compared with its Western counterparts, ISKCON’s women’s movement is still a new thing. So exploring their differences and their similarities could provide valuable clues as to the ideas, motivations, and conditions that gives impetus to the women’s movement in ISKCON. Such an exploration may also help us understand how the women’s movement may shape ISKCON’s future.

In order to facilitate honest and open discussion on the question of the Western influence in ISKCON and especially the influence of the women’s movement in ISKCON, this essay analyzes the ideas and methods of  ISKCON’s women’s movement and explores the similarities and differences it has with its counterparts outside of ISKCON.

Krishna-kirti das (HDG)

February 23, 2005


The Women’s Movement in ISKCON

What is ISKCON’s women’s movement? This quote from editors Edwin Bryant and Maria Ekstrand in “The Hare Krishna Movement, The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant” provides a succinct description:

The society [ISKCON] is experiencing the stirrings of a suffragette movement reacting against the historical disempowerment and denigration of women, who have long been denied access to prominent roles as a result of the sannyasi (male, lifelong reunciant) culture and ethos developed in ISKCON in the 1970s (see Knott and Muster).{2}

suffragette is “an advocate of women’s suffrage”{3} , especially a militant advocate of women’s right to vote. Patricia Greenwood Harrison provides a more detailed account of the origins and usage of the terms suffrage, suffragette, etc., as used to describe the historic struggle for the political enfranchisement of women.

In the United States, the nineteenth-century discussion of the economic, social, and political rights of women was called the “Woman Question”; the movement for political enfranchisement was called the woman suffrage movement. The later British suffrage movement used the term women’s suffrage movement to describe its campaign for the vote, while the international suffrage organization used the term woman suffrage. . . . The word “suffragist” was used in both countries to describe the moderate or constitutional advocates of woman suffrage. After 1906, the word “suffragette” was used to describe the militants in Britain. The distinction between suffragist and suffragette was recognized in both countries during the years under investigation.{4}

The term suffragette movement as used by Bryant and Ekstrand aptly describes a women’s suffrage movement within ISKCON that in many ways bears a striking resemblance to the historical suffragist movements of America and Britain. But unlike historical suffragist movements, the women’s movement in ISKCON is not solely concerned with acquiring the right to vote, or equal opportunity to participate in ISKCON’s institutional decision making. Historically, women’s suffragist movements were primarily concerned with securing the right to vote. However, when efforts to secure rights for women expanded to include social status, economic entitlement, and special privileges based on gender (things not necessarily won by vote), feminism came to be the term used to describe this expanded idea of women’s equality and the movement around this idea. Much like its historical suffragist and feminist predecessors, the women’s movement in ISKCON is made up of women and men from all areas and all levels of ISKCON and who are moderate, constitutional or sometimes militant advocates of women’s equal and full participation within ISKCON’s economic, social and political spheres.

Use and Acceptance of Feminist Terminology in ISKCON

For ISKCON’s members, terms like feminism, feminist, women’s rights and, to a slightly lesser degree, equal rights are highly stigmatized. Rights advocates within ISKCON have been careful to distance themselves from these terms when presenting their program, lest they and their message be tainted with the feminist stigma. In March 2000, when the Women’s Ministry made their famous presentation at the GBC meetings in Mayapura, Sitala devi dasi in her speech to the GBC body stated that the presentation was “not about promoting feminism.”{5}  In the same presentation, Saudamani devi dasi went further in trying to quell notions that the Women’s Ministry advocated a feminist platform.

There was a rumour going around that we ladies were in Mayapura to present some feminist agenda. The idea was that, under the influence of the modern women’s rights movement or the theology which denies the hierarchical nature of existence, we would plead with the GBC to change the philosophy or adjust Srila Prabhupada’s teachings in order to fit in with the times. You can feel reassured that the ladies here before you are among the most philosophically conservative in our movement.{6}

Not only did members of the Women’s Ministry and their supporters (henceforward “the women’s movement”) reject the feminist label, they also rejected the term women’s rights—another term tightly bound to historical and contemporary feminism. In the presentation, all of the members carefully avoided the term equal rights. Also notable was the effort to distance the presentation from unspecific, feminist ideologies that deny “the hierarchical nature of existence.” Because the conventional language of Western feminism was not to be found in the writing and speech of the women’s movement, their ideas and demands were not perceived as feminist. By carefully avoiding terminology closely associated with feminism, the women’s movement overcame the most serious objection they faced, which was that they advocated a feminist ideology and social agenda.

While simultaneously avoiding the most serious objections, the women’s movement set out to win acceptance for their ideas by couching them in the terminology of spiritual rights and duties. In the paper “Participation, Protection and Patriarchy: An International Model for the Role of Women in ISKCON,”{7} Radha devi dasi argued that the “mutual relationship of rights and duties” as found in scriptural references such as sarva-dharman parityajya also applies to the relationship ISKCON has with its members. If a devotee fulfills his duty of surrendering to Krishna, then he has a right to Krishna’s protection. Similarly, if a devotee fulfills the duties and obligations that come with being a member of ISKCON, then he can reasonably expect certain rights and guarantees from ISKCON. If it could be shown that the most important duties (as opposed to trivial duties) were the same for both women and men in ISKCON, then it could be plausibly argued that the rights of ISKCON’s women should be the same as those of ISKCON’s men. Jyotirmayi devi dasi in her paper “Women in ISKCON in Prabhupada’s Time” argued this very idea: “By accepting women in the temples and giving them the brahmacarini status, Prabhupada . . . gave them all the same rights and duties of the brahmacaris in the guru’s ashrama.”{8}  Indeed, the speeches, articles, and position papers of the women’s movement were almost exclusively dedicated to proving—through the language of spiritual rights and duties—that this ideology was reasonable and scripturally authoritative.

Ideology, Meaning and Social Change in ISKCON

How would this ideology change ISKCON? The women’s movement hoped (correctly, it seems) that if their ideas were widely accepted, they would win guarantees of protection from ISKCON and rights to participate in ISKCON’s affairs—minimally to the same extent that men purportedly have guarantees and rights. Radha devi dasi categorized these rights as “substantive rights” and “participation rights”{9} . Substantive rights provide guarantees of shelter, food, protection, etc.  Participation rights include things like “citizenship, voting and ability to hold office.”{10}  Substantive rights, as articulated by the women’s movement, include sharing the temple room; having adequate food, clothing, and ashrama facility; adequate resources required of any service; and protection from things like sexual harassment. Medical care{11} also made it to their list of substantive rights.{12}  Specific participation rights (social rights, in this context) include access to “visible symbols of advancement”{13} such as titles like GBC and Temple President{14}as well as getting more time lecturing from the vyasasana. Another set of participation rights, political rights, includes “women in leadership roles from the highest levels down to the local temple communities”{15} , which of course also means “representation of women on the GBC”{16} . Although many of the rights insisted on by the women’s movement are unobjectionable, even this partial list of rights is quite at odds with their careful efforts to rhetorically distance themselves from any notion that they were asking for feminist-type equal rights. What rights did ISKCON’s men have that the women’s movement did not also insist on having?

This last conceptual hurdle was overcome by emphasizing within the debate on women’s roles the word “service”?a term when used informally by ISKCON’s devotees conflates (combines) the meanings of bhakti and yukta-vairagya. Bhakti, by definition, is ahaituky apratihata?it cannot be checked by any material condition. Yukta-vairagya, however, is the utilization of something material in the course of performing bhakti. Though utilized in Krishna’s service, a material thing by itself is not bhakti. Sravanam and kirtanam are always considered bhakti, but as the women’s movement has repeatedly reminded us, positions of authority, for example, are not always used for the Lord’s service. In spite of this distinction, devotees nonetheless use the word “service” when referring to any chore, activity, or social position that is somehow related to ISKCON. This understanding of service worked to the advantage of the women’s movement, whose activists simply emphasized this commonly understood meaning in the context of the debate on women’s roles. Some examples: “. . . women and children can thrive in Krsna consciousness, rendering service according to their desire and inclination.”{17} ; “As far as the service of temple president was concerned, Srila Prabhupada included husband and wife.”{18} . Even Srila Prabhupada used this language: “Since his service here in India is valuable as GBC . . . kindly give him visa.” But for many of ISKCON’s members, the conflated meaning of bhakti and yukta-vairagya embedded in the word “service” had the effect of transferring an unique characteristic of bhakti?that it cannot be checked by any material circumstance—to yukta-vairagya, material things used in Krishna’s service. Since the position of GBC or temple president was a “service”, and since service to Krishna cannot be checked by any material circumstance, it follows that these positions, by definition, cannot be denied to women simply because of their gender (a material circumstance). Visakha devi dasi argued thusly, “If we are presently forbidding certain services to qualified Vaisnavis, we may be quickly gliding towards the caste system.”{19}  The conflated meaning of bhakti and yukta-vairagya, as emphasized within the discourse on women’s roles, rights and duties within ISKCON, helped establish the egalitarian social view that women may assume any role, including any of ISKCON’s managerial positions.

Addressing Deeper Objections

Although for most devotees this settled the issue on women’s roles in ISKCON, the ideas and practical demands of the women’s movement remained problematic at a deeper level. In important ways, their ideology was still irreconcilable with prominent views and statements about an ideal society, as found in Vaisnava scripture. Within the context of women’s social and occupational roles, if the conflated meaning of service advocated by the women’s movement was valid, then why was a semblance of its gender-egalitarian implications not to be found in scriptural descriptions of an ideal society? Instead, Vaisnava scriptures described and lauded societies that were overtly patriarchal—this included societies controlled by great Vaisnavas.

The idea of gender-egalitarian social roles for women is even more emphatically incompatible with Srila Prabhupada’s statements about these societies and their social and occupational divisions. When commenting on Devaki’s skill in diplomacy, Srila Prabhupada wrote, “As we learn from the history of the Mahabharata, or ‘Greater India,’ the wives and daughters of the ruling class, the ksatriyas, knew the political game, but we never find that a woman was given the post of chief executive.”{20}  In the same passage he affirms that this is in accordance with the Manu-samhita and that in the world today, “Manu-samhita is now being insulted.” Elsewhere Srila Prabhupada remarked, “In Kali-yuga, people are extremely liberal, but mixing with women and talking with them as equals actually constitutes an uncivilized way of life.”{21}

The women’s movement tried to explain that Vaisnavis were categorical exceptions to these kinds of statements, and writers of the women’s movement produced references that supported this view. In reference to the statement “these girls are not ordinary girls, but are as good as their brothers who are preaching Krishna consciousness,”{22} Radha devi dasi concluded that Srila Prabhupada made an “analytical exception” for “women engaged in transcendental activities”.{23} In trying to explain that the “negative half of the woman picture” has been overemphasized and does not apply to Vaisnavis, Visakha devi dasi provided counterbalancing references: “Actually male and female bodies, these are just outward designations. Lord Caitanya said that whether one is brahmana or whatever he may be if he knows the science of Krishna then he is to be accepted as guru.”{24} “Never the trust the politician and woman. Of course, when woman comes to Krishna consciousness, that position is different. We are speaking of ordinary woman.”{25}  By arguing in this way, the women’s movement strongly suggested that references to ordinary women (the negative references) do not apply to ISKCON’s women.

A Radical View of ISKCON’s Women: An Ideological Necessity

But as is the case with ISKCON’s men, ISKCON’s women may be less extraordinary than the women’s movement has suggested. Later in the above cited Bhagavad-gita lecture (quoted from by Visakha devi dasi), Srila Prabhupada elaborates on Srimad-Bhagavatam verse 9.19.17, saying that even a most learned man in the solitary company of his mother, sister or daughter can become polluted. Srila Prabhupada then comments on his policy of allowing women to reside in his temples, that “I shall give this chance to woman [to become Krishna conscious] even at the risk.”{26}  In the years since Srila Prabhupada’s passing from this world, this “risk” catalyzed many fall downs. Anywhere from 35% – 50% of ISKCON’s gurus and leaders have fallen (typically from liaisons with Vaisnavis), and by no means has fall down been limited to gurus and leaders. Just as in Srila Prabhupada’s recorded works there are many references which affirm that women who become Vaisnavis are not ordinary women, there are also many references which affirm that men who become Vaisnavas are similarly not to be regarded as ordinary men. But if even these “extraordinary men” have had such extraordinary difficulty in transcending material nature, is it reasonable to conclude that, in spite of sharing a common, disadvantaged cultural background, ISKCON’s women succeeded where ISKCON’s men failed? The women’s movement never articulated a view of women who are on the path of bhakti but still susceptible to the influence of material nature, because doing so would belie their claims to being exceptional. If women in ISKCON were generally and to some degree still ordinary, then the “negative half of the woman picture” rejected by the women’s movement would at least to some degree still apply to women in ISKCON. This could explain why the women’s movement has categorically described Vaisnavis in ISKCON as radical exceptions to whom the “ordinary rules” do not apply.

ISKCON’s Women’s Movement from the Western Perspective

ISKCON, like any other religious society, is affected by the cultural forces that also influence other religions. Although ISKCON is theologically and culturally rooted in East Indian Vaisnavism (Gaudiya Vaisnavism), ISKCON also has prominent cultural roots in the West because much of its membership and particularly its leadership are culturally Western. When trying to understand something or describe it, we always do so from our experience. To a large extent, ISKCON’s own members have understood ISKCON through Western eyes, so the Western perspective is important. If we were to totally deny its validity, we would simultaneously deny the validity of much of our own perspective on ISKCON. Comparing aspects of ISKCON’s society to like aspects of Western society can therefore give us some valuable insights as to what ISKCON’s devotees might do in certain situations and why. To this end and in the context of this essay, this question is posed: From the Western perspective, what is ISKCON’s women’s movement? How would it be described from the Western perspective?

Defining a Women’s Movement

A logical place to begin the comparison is with the articulated demands of ISKCON’s women’s movement. What are their demands? What rights do they say they should have? As described previously, they have insisted on two broad categories of rights they have labeled “substantive rights” and “participation rights.” As previously mentioned, the women’s movement’s list of substantive rights, among other things, includes adequate ashram facility, equal access to temple facilities such as use of the temple room, protection from sexual harassment, medical care, and basic necessities such as food and clothing. Although some of their demands would be met by law enforcement{27} , most of their substantive demands are for economic provisions. If ISKCON does not provide adequate food, clothing, ashram facility, etc., then these necessities must be secured through money earned from a job or a business. The list of participation rights includes social rights such as equivalent access to “visible symbols of advancement” that approximate things like the sannyasa danda and equal access to titles and positions of authority like temple president and GBC{28} . The list of participation rights also includes “significant numbers of women leaders” who engage in decision making “from the highest levels down to the local temple communities”{29} .  These are obvious demands for equal political rights.

While ISKCON’s women’s movement has categorized their demanded rights as substantive rights and participation rights, other fields in the social sciences and in women’s studies have sometimes differently categorized them. These rights can also be categorized as economic rights, social rights, legal rights and political rights, and the women’s movement has demanded all these rights to at least the same extent that men supposedly have them. The scope and categorization of rights called for by ISKCON’s women’s movement nicely fits what scholars have defined as women’s rights and feminism.

women’s rights (pl.n.)

  1. Socioeconomic, political, and legal rights for women equal to those of men.
  2. A movement in support of these rights.{30}

fem–i–nism (n.)

  1. Belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.
  2. The movement organized around this belief.{31}

Although women’s rights and feminism are closely related terms, they have functional distinctions. ?Feminism? is the ideological component of equal rights, and ?women’s rights? is its practical implementation. Without a belief in equal rights, no one will work to establish them. Because ISKCON’s women’s movement has an expressed belief in equal rights and endeavors to implement them as socioeconomic, political and legal rights equal to those of men, ISKCON’s women’s movement can be correctly identified as a feminist movement.

Historical Feminism and ISKCON’s Women’s Movement

The women’s movement in ISKCON in important ways resembles both contemporary and historical feminist movements. Before describing these important similarities, this condensed history of feminism from the Columbia Encyclopedia will serve both as historical and conceptual points of reference:


Women traditionally had been regarded as inferior to men physically and intellectually. Both law and theology had ordered their subjection. Women could not possess property in their own names, engage in business, or control the disposal of their children or even of their own persons. Although Mary Astell and others had pleaded earlier for larger opportunities for women, the first feminist document was Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). In the French Revolution, women’s republican clubs demanded that liberty, equality, and fraternity be applied regardless of sex, but this movement was extinguished for the time by the Code Napoléon.

In North America, although Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren pressed for the inclusion of women’s emancipation in the Constitution, the feminist movement really dates from 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton , Lucretia Coffin Mott , and others, in a women’s convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y., issued a declaration of independence for women, demanding full legal equality, full educational and commercial opportunity, equal compensation, the right to collect wages, and the right to vote. Led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan Brownell Anthony , the movement spread rapidly and soon extended to Europe. . . .

. . .

In 1946 the UN Commission on the Status of Women was established to secure equal political rights, economic rights, and educational opportunities for women throughout the world. In the 1960s feminism experienced a rebirth, especially in the United States. The National Organization for Women (NOW), formed in 1966, had over 400 local chapters by the early 1970s. NOW, the National Women’s Political Caucus, and other groups pressed for such changes as abortion rights, federally supported child care centers, equal pay for women, the occupational upgrading of women, the removal of all legal and social barriers to education, political influence, and economic power for women.{32}

The first two sentences in part accurately describe some of Vaisnavism’s traditional views of women. Manu-smriti, as oft repeated by Srila Prabhupada, clearly states that women should never be independent—they require the maintenance and oversight of a father, husband or son. As has been previously shown in this document, Srila Prabhupada considered this arrangement an objective standard for a civilized society. What is more, the ideal women to be found in the scriptures—Sita, Rukmini, Kunti, Draupadi, Devahuti, Devaki, Gandhari, Arci, etc.,?all faithfully followed this injunction.

The reference to theology in the Columbia Encyclopedia’s short history of feminism is important, because when religion is the primary ethical guidance for society, in important ways civil law will be correlated with religious precepts. Therefore, in a strongly religious society changing the law sometimes means first changing the religion, or at least rescuing it from its present corruption. The first women’s conference at Seneca Falls, New York, realized this idea and developed a strategy around it. In the Seneca Falls declarations and in statements made by members of ISKCON’s women’s movement, we find that the subordination of women was considered the result of a corrupt understanding of scripture. From the Seneca Falls declarations of 1848:

RESOLVED, That woman is man’s equal — was intended to be so by the Creator, and the highest good of the race demands that she should be recognized as such.

RESOLVED, That woman has too long rested satisfied in the circumscribed limits which corrupt customs and a perverted application of the Scriptures have marked out for her, and that it is time she should move in the enlarged sphere which her great Creator has assigned her.{33}

From the women’s movement in ISKCON:

If we truly thought in terms of what is effective for spreading Krishna consciousness, many of the controversies between men and women would disappear.{34}

WHEREAS, it is our belief that many of the social issues that confront us are exacerbated because the voice of our women, who are the mothers and daughters of our Krsna conscious family, have been hushed and stifled due to misinterpretation of our Vaisnava philosophy, and thus the human and interpersonal needs of our devotees have been minimized,{35}

The Seneca Falls declarations also mentioned the “overthrow of the pulpit” as one of their objectives.

RESOLVED, That inasmuch as man, while claiming for himself intellectual superiority, does accord to woman moral superiority, it is pre-eminently his duty to encourage her to speak and teach, as she has an opportunity, in all religious assemblies.

RESOLVED, That the speedy success of our cause depends upon … untiring efforts of both men and women, for the overthrow of the monopoly of the pulpit, and for the securing to woman an equal participation with men in the various trades, professions, and commerce.{36}

That women were considered morally superior to men, a typical Victorian sentiment, has similarly been expressed by writers in ISKCON’s women’s movement:

The feminine qualities of nurturing and compassion perish when pitted against the masculine lust for power. Our most noble spiritual path, when denied feminine values, degenerates to prideful hypocrisy rather than devotion.{37}

Note the comparison of gender-specific traits: feminine qualities of nurturing and compassion versus masculine lust for power?a Victorian contrast indeed! Also notable in the Seneca Falls declarations is the demand to provide women with the opportunity to speak in all religious assemblies—something the women’s movement in ISKCON demanded along with overthrowing the monopoly of the vyasasana.

Feminism Within a Religious Social Context

Although the women’s movement in ISKCON in many ways also resembles contemporary feminism in its economic, social and political objectives, it nonetheless has less in common with it than with the feminism of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This is because earlier feminist movements existed at a time when religion had much greater influence on society. A consequence of this greater religious influence was the widespread belief in the sanctity of life, which manifested in earlier feminist moments as anti-abortion activism. Modern feminism, by contrast, promotes sexual liberation, which of course is facilitated by contraception and abortion—something the women’s movement in ISKCON has been careful to distance itself from.

One last point with respect to the concept of “equal rights” — that phrase seems to be a hot button for some people and it can mean different things at different times. The comments which Srila Prabhupada made about “equal rights” were made in the context of America in the 1970s when the women’s rights movement in America had sexual liberation as a major part of its agenda. His statements indicate that he was particularly (and justifiably) repulsed by that aspect. Needless to say, the Women’s Ministry is not seeking “equal rights” in the same context.{38}

The above statement echoes the sentiments of America’s founding feminist mothers:

There is a widespread belief that to be feminist means to advocate abortion. This attitude not only belies the complexity of opinion on the issue for the feminist movement: it also means that the views of the many early feminists who condemned abortion in the late eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have effectively become hidden from history.

Among American feminists in the nineteenth century opposition to abortion was widespread. Prominent feminists of the period who opposed it included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan Anthony and Alice Paul. Stanton once remarked, on the estimate that 400 abortion `murders’ annually occurred in Androscoggin County, Maine, alone:

There must be a remedy for such a crying evil as this. But where shall it be found, at least where begin, if not in the complete enfranchisement and elevation of women?{39}

Another consequence of a strong religious influence is that women’s rights activists had to derive their legitimacy from scripture. Hence, the earlier feminist movements and the women’s movement in ISKCON have both spent much energy on revisionist scholarship.

Like other woman’s rights activists, Blackwell reinterpreted scripture through a feminist lens, picking out egalitarian passages that she could use as ammunition against her opponents. The feminist arsenal included Genesis 1:26-27 (“God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them”), which was interpreted as evidence of the simultaneous creation of the sexes; Joel 2:28 (“your sons and your daughters shall prophesy”), which was used to defend women’s religious leadership; and the scattered accounts of biblical “prophetesses” and heroines such as Deborah and Anna. “Real” religion, these women claimed, recognized the mutual dependence and equality of the sexes. “We had all got our notions too much from the clergy, instead of the Bible,” Lucretia Mott complained. “The Bible . . . had none of the prohibitions in regard to women.” 20{40}

  1. women are emotional and lack discrimination “Women as a class are no better than boys, and therefore they have no discriminatory power like that of a man. Asvatthama proved himself to be an unworthy son of Dronacharya or of a brahmana, and for this reason he was condemned by the greatest authority, Lord Sri Krishna, and yet a mild woman [Draupadi] could not withdraw her natural courtesy for a brahmana. . . We should not follow the mild nature of a woman and thereby accept that which is not genuine.” (SB 1.7.42 purport) On the other hand, “Draupadi desired that Asvatthama be at once released, and it was all the same a good sentiment for her. This means that a devotee of the Lord can tolerate all sorts of tribulation personally, but still such devotees are never unkind to others, even to the enemy. These are the characteristics of one who is a pure devotee of the Lord.” (SB 1.7.43 purport) Not only that, but “Maharaja Yudhisthira, who was the son of Dharmaraja, or Yamaraja, fully supported the words of Queen Draupadi in asking Arjuna to release Asvatthama. . . Draupadi was herself a mother, and therefore her calculation of the depth of Kripi’s grief was quite to the point. And it was glorious because she wanted to show proper respect to a great family.” (SB 1.7.49)

This dialogue of quotes is not meant to be like counter-Brahmastras thrown to nullify Brahmastras. It is simply to present something of a balance, to turn the priceless gem of Krishna consciousness to reflect different angles of beautiful light. However, generally we are exposed to only the negative half of the woman picture. All the quotes are there for all to see. Why are some emphasized at the expense of others? Could there be some unconscious motivation, some benefit to a certain group of people from that unspoken selection policy? Is our conditioning coloring which quotes we remember?{41}

Selective emphasis as found in the above examples, however, left untouched some of the deeper problems in scriptural interpretation mentioned previously. One of the deeper problems faced by early feminist revisionism is that if the scriptural passages objected to are consistent enough, explicit enough and numerous enough, then merely emphasizing other verses to counter them leaves the revisionist tactic open to the very same objection it levies. Of the feminists, the traditionalists can also rightly ask, “Why are some emphasized at the expense of others? Could there be some unconscious motivation, some benefit to a certain group of people from that unspoken selection policy? Is our conditioning coloring which quotes we remember?”{42}

Liberal biblical revisionists in dealing with problems like this have resorted to editing, annotation, retranslation and interpretation like that of formalist criticism to make the Bible more “relevant” to the modern context. This perhaps explains why within ISKCON some now openly advocate revision of Srila Prabhupada’s books. The reasons offered by liberal biblical revisionists and ISKCON’s own revisionists are the same, that the scriptures in each religion need to be made more relevant to a wider audience. Within both Christianity and ISKCON, the impetus for this deeper kind of revisionism arose in part from the contradictions inherent in selective emphasis of scriptural passages, as practiced by early Western feminists and by members of ISKCON’s women’s movement.


That the activists in ISKCON’s women’s movement have been overwhelmingly composed of members who are culturally American or European appears to correlate with the fact that feminism has been most prominent in the West, where the economy, legal system and comprehensive social safety nets have progressively made feminism affordable and desirable to single women. Given the demography of ISKCON and its chronic social, economic, and institutional troubles since the passing of its founder, the rise of ISKCON’s women’s movement was, perhaps, inevitable. Since the intellectuals and activists that made up ISKCON’s women’s movement were predominantly Western, it is not surprising that their demands, methods, and ideology closely resembled those of western feminist movements. Because ISKCON’s women’s movement formed, thought and acted within a highly religious social context, it more closely resembles mid-19th and early 20th century American women’s movements (also formed in a highly religious social context) than it does the modern women’s movements dating from the last half of the 20th century.

At this time, what makes the women’s movement in ISKCON an interesting chapter in western feminism’s ongoing saga is its use of language, where the familiar terminology of contemporary feminism was carefully avoided. Unlike most Christian denominations in the West (particularly within mainstream Protestant denominations as well as within the Catholic Church), where feminist terminology used favorably and within a religious context is often tolerated, writers and other intellectuals in ISKCON’s women’s movement had the onerous task of persuading a skeptical audience without the benefit of terms they and their audience were familiar with. By employing this policy, they achieved many of their objectives with admirable success.

Although the activists and intellectuals that make up ISKCON’s women’s movement will likely try to avoid using contemporary feminist terminology for some time to come, given the vast amounts of research extant in the areas of feminism and women’s studies, we can well ask if ISKCON’s members are not in fact denying themselves the benefit of these vast areas of scholarly opinion and research when they deny the use of language employed by scholars in these areas? For example, Kaye Asha in her book “The Feminization of the Church?” begins her book by defining what she means by the church’s feminization:

The church becomes feminized in this sense when women exercise their right and ability to join in the human and religious activities of symbol-making, becoming not only consumers but creators of religious culture. It becomes feminized when women add their voices to the discourse on Christian ethics and claim their authority as responsible moral agents. Church language becomes feminized when it recognizes women’s existence, experience, history and value; and ministry undergoes a feminization when every form of it is open to women. Finally, leadership in the church becomes feminized when it values relationship, inclusiveness, participation and flexibility, qualities that women’s social experience has prepared them to value.{43}

As per Asha’s description, ISKCON has also undergone or is undergoing every single transformation she ascribes to the terms feminized and feminization. In ISKCON women are certainly exercising “their right and ability to join in the human and religious activities of symbol-making.” ISKCON’s women have added “their voices to the discourse” on Vaisnava ethics and have also claimed “their authority as responsible moral agents.” Since 2000, has ISKCON not striven officially and practically to recognize “women’s existence, experience, history and value” and endeavored to make “every form” of its ministries “open to women”? Finally, have well-wishers within ISKCON and sympathetic outsiders like those within academia not advised ISKCON’s leadership to value “relationship, inclusiveness, participation and flexibility, qualities that women’s social experience has prepared them to value”? Indeed, they have! In 2000, quoting Radha devi dasi while addressing the GBC assembly, Rukmini devi dasi said,

Most women in ISKCON are engaged in traditional roles. We are mothers, wives, cooks, housekeepers and caretakers. We cook, we clean, we care for the children and the men in our Society, as well as caring for each other. But these tasks are not the whole of our abilities or of the contribution we have to make to Srila Prabhupada’s movement.

In fact, it is our very participation in the ‘private sphere’ that gives us a unique contribution to the public discourse. There are important gender differences that cannot be ignored. This fact, often used as an argument for silencing women, is actually a reason why they should be involved in ISKCON’s public discourse.{44}

Since the ideas, methods, and activities of ISKCON’s women’s movement so closely matches those of Western feminist movements—especially within religious contexts—is it not correct to say that ISKCON is also being feminized? If in ISKCON’s social discourse we continue avoiding terms such as feminist, feminism, women’s rights and equal rights, then we shut ourselves off from an abundance of history, analysis, opinion and lessons learned that can help us shape ISKCON’s future.

End Notes

{1}Radha devi dasi. “Labeled A ‘Feminist’” November 26, 1998. Editorial http://www.vnn.org/editorials/ET9811/ET26-2560.html.

{2}Edwin Bryant, Maria Ekstrand. “The Hare Krishna Movement, The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant.” Columbia University Press, New York., 2004. “Introduction”. page 5.

{3}American Heritage(R) Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.

{4}Patricia Greenwood Harrison. “Connecting Links: The British and American Woman Suffrage Movements, 1900-1914.” Greenwood Press: Westport, CT., 2000. page xix.

{5}Sitala dasi. “Women in ISKCON” March 2000. page: http://www.iskcon.com/icj/8_1/women.html.

{6}Saudamani dasi. “Women in ISKCON”.

{7}Radha devi dasi. “Participation, Protection and Patriarchy: An International model for the role of women in ISKCON” http://www.iskcon.com/icj/6_1/6_1radha.html.

{8}Jyotirmayi devi dasi. “Women in ISKCON in Prabhupada’s Time” page: http://www.vaisnavi.com/Articles/Women%20in%20ISKCON%20in%20Prabhupada’s%20Time.htm.

{9}Radha devi dasi. “Participation, Protection and Patriarchy”.

{10}Radha devi dasi. “Participation, Protection and Patriarchy”.

{11}Rukmini devi dasi. “Women in ISKCON”.

{12}This is something few, if any, male ISKCON members have ever had.

{13}Radha devi dasi. “Participation, Protection and Patriarchy”.

{14}Radha devi dasi. “Participation, Protection and Patriarchy”.

{15}Radha devi dasi. “Participation, Protection and Patriarchy”.

{16}Rukmini devi dasi. “Women in ISKCON”.

{17}Yamuna devi dasi. “Women in ISKCON”.

{18}Jyotirmayi devi dasi. “Women in ISKCON in Prabhupada’s Time”.

{19}Visakha devi dasi. “Women in ISKCON”.

{20}Srila Prabhupada. Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.4.5 purport.

{21}Srila Prabhupada. Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.12.18 purport.

{22}Srila Prabhupada. Caitanya-caritamrta Adi lila. 7.31 – 32 purport.

{23}Radha devi dasi “Participation, Protection and Patriarchy”.

{24}Srila Prabhupada. Letter to Malati. December 25, 1974.

{25}Srila Prabhupada. Lecture. Bhagavad-gita 1.40. July 28, 1973.

{26}Srila Prabhupada. Lecture. Bhagavad-gita 1.40. July 28, 1973.

{27}The best known example of an investigative agency within ISKCON is the Child Protection Office (CPO), which after reaching a decision on any case under investigation passes the verdict on to the GBC and concerned temple presidents, who are expected to comply (enforce) the decision of the CPO. In many instances, the CPO has involved secular law enforcement for assistance. The CPO typically investigates cases of child abuse and abuse of women.

{28}Radha devi dasi. “Participation, Protection and Patriarchy”.

{29}Radha devi dasi. “Participation, Protection and Patriarchy”.

{30}American Heritage(R) Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.

{31}American Heritage(R) Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.

{32}Encyclopedia Article Title: “Feminism”. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press: New York, 2004. page 16670.

{33}Women’s Rights Declarations and Convention Resolutions: From the Wesleyan Chapel (1848) to Independence Hall (1876). page: http://www.lehigh.edu/~dek7/SSAWW/writWRDRSenR.htm.

{34}Radha devi dasi. “Participation, Protection and Patriarchy”.

{35}GBC. “Minutes of The Annual General Meeting of The ISKCON GBC Body Society Sri Dham Mayapur.” March 2, 2000. Section 500, Holy Places and Spiritual Communities: Women in ISKCON.

{36}Women’s Rights Declarations and Convention Resolutions. 1848.

{37}Kusa devi dasi. “Women in ISKCON”.

{38}Radha devi dasi. Email dated October 30, 1998.

{39}Mary Krane Derr, Angela Kennedy. “Feminism and Abortion.” History Today. Volume 49, Issue: 8. August 1999. page 34.

{40}Editors: Don S. Browning, Anne Carr, Mary Stewart Leeuwen. “Religion, Feminism and the Family.” [Chapter 11, ” Restoring the Divine Order to the World: Religion and the Family in the Antebellum Woman’s Rights Movement” Contributor: Catherine A. Brekus.] Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville, KY. 1996. pages 168 – 171.

{41}Visakha devi dasi. “Humility, Chastity, Surrender and Protection” http://www.chakra.org/mainpages/women/index.htm.

{42}Visakha devi dasi. “Humility, Chastity, Surrender and Protection”.

{43}Kaye Asha. “The Feminization of the Church?” Sheed & Ward, Kansas City, 1997. Page xiii.

{44}Rumkini devi dasi. “Women in ISKCON”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s