CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

CESNUR 2006 International Conference
July 13-16, 2006
San Diego State University, San Diego, California
Religion, Globalization, and Conflict: International Perspectives

The Politics of Gender within the Hare Krishna Movement

E. Burke ROCHFORD (Middlebury College)

A paper presented at the CESNUR 2006 International Conference. Please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author

Spiritual life begins with the realization that one is not the material body but an eternal spiritual soul.  The designations ‘male’ and ‘female’ refer only to the material body.  So ultimately they have nothing to do with the soul, or self (Devi Dasi, Sitarani 1982:12).

The abuses and neglect of women and children must be corrected immediately, as our sexist and inhumane behavior reflects badly on Srila Prabhupada and taints the movement in the eyes of the world (Dasi, Rukmini 2000:16; presentation to ISKCON’s leaders).

The question of women’s place within religion is longstanding and controversial (Daly 1985).  On the one hand women fill the churches, do much of the work of maintaining congregations, and are largely responsible for socializing children to religious values and practices. Yet, on the other hand, in most of the world’s religious traditions women are excluded from formal religious roles and often condemned as spiritually weak, polluted, and less capable than men of reaching spiritual enlightenment (Puttick 2003:230).  Among new religious movements however, we find considerable range in how women are defined and in the roles they perform.  Some new religions are enclaves of patriarchal power while others represent utopian experiments embracing feminism and matriarchy (Aidala 1985; Jacobs 1984; Palmer 1994, 2003, 2004; Puttick 1996).  

Although new religious movements collectively encompass a great variety of gender roles, there has been little research on the process by which women’s roles change and the factors that influence that change (Puttick 2003:230).  Moreover, scholars have failed to consider how conflicts over gender roles influence the development of new religious organizations.  In ISKCON’s case, women’s issues have remained contentious for many years.  Knott (1995) goes so far as to suggest that women’s issues are second only to ISKCON’s crisis of leadership in threatening the movement’s future.1   

Marginalization and Abuse

Beginning in the mid-1970s, a traditionalist patriarchal framework increasingly came to dominate ISKCON.  As a consequence, women devotees became targets of public criticism, scorn, neglect, and abusive treatment at the hands of men.  This mistreatment signaled a fundamental change in women’s identities as Krishna devotees and ISKCON members. 

Changes in women’s lives occurred as the political power of renunciate sannyasis grew organizationally in the early and mid-1970s (Deadwyler 2004; Devi Dasi, Jyotirmayi 2002; Dasi, Visakha and Dasi, Sudharma 2000).  As they ascended to positions of organizational leadership, ISKCON’s religious culture changed in ways that profoundly marginalized devotee women.  Thereafter, “devotee women were no longer viewed as partners in a spiritual renaissance, rather they were categorized as personifications of the illusory energy Mayadevi, who threatened to cause men to deviate from their noble spiritual quest” (Dasi, Visakha and Dasi, Sudharma 2000:2).  One ISKCON leader reflected on the changes that took place during this period, and the implications for women’s lives.

The population of sannyasis increased dramatically.  A genuine desire for transcendence often commingled with an urge to acquire prestige, position, and power within ISKCON, propelled most of these young men into rash and improvident heroics.  The persistence of desires they could neither acknowledge nor control began to erupt as intolerance and fanaticism.  The social climate turned ugly (Deadwyler 2004:159).     

Renunciate leaders believed that women posed a direct threat to ISKCON’s preaching mission.  As one renowned sannyasi of the 1970s proclaimed, “Whenever you make a woman a devotee, you lose one man” (cited in Goswami, Tamal Krishna 1984).  Because women’s spiritual fulfillment rested largely on marriage and family life, it was assumed that in time they would marry, thus converting renunciate brahmacharies into householders.  Such concerns became so great in the mid-1970s that a portion of the movement’s sannyasi leadership considered a plan to send all devotee women in North America to Australia (Das, Ravindra Svarupa 2000a:4; Dasi, Sudharma 2000:14).  

The patriarchal message preached by ISKCON’s renunciate leaders directly and indirectly shaped gender politics within ISKCON’s North American communities over the course of two decades.  Sannyasis and bramacharies routinely expressed negative attitudes toward devotee women, finding scriptural support for their actions.  As one woman described:

The men thought it was Vedic to spit on the ground to demonstrate their resentment toward women.  They got their cue from a stanza in the scriptures that said, ‘Since I have been engaged in the transcendental loving service of Krishna, realizing ever-new pleasure in Him, whenever I think of sex pleasure, I spit at the thought, and my lips curl with distaste’ (Srimad Bhagavatam 4.25.24, purport, cited in Muster 2004:313). 

To negate the influence of women, ISKCON’s male dominated temple communities instituted a number of changes that fundamentally reshaped women’s lives.  These included relegating women to the back of the temple during worship services to avoid “distracting” men and discontinuing opportunities for women to give classes, to lead kirtans, and to help manage temple affairs.  Women routinely faced disparaging and demeaning public lectures by sannyasis and other men wherein their “intelligence, motives and capabilities” were criticized or dismissed (Dasi, Visakha and Dasi, Sudharma 2000:2).  Women’s identities were effectively reconstructed, becoming "unintelligent," "spiritually dangerous" to men, and incapable of little more than household duties and tending to the needs of children (Deadwyler 2004; Judah 1974:86; Whitworth and Shiels 1982:161).  As one devotee woman who lived through this era explained.

In the not-so-distant past, the climate has been so intolerable, that daily Bhagavatam classes proclaimed the position of women as a dangerous element in our society to be reckoned with.  And we reckoned with them by instituting unspoken laws prohibiting them from certain services, keeping their participation in temple programs to an absolute minimum, and allowing an atmosphere . . . to create deep inferiority complexes and fear.  Most women were embarrassed to be women, and knew they were thoroughly unwelcome in ISKCON (Devi Dasi, Pranada 2002:1).

Although it remains unknown how many devotee women were subject to neglect and abuse, it is clear that the anti-women climate resulted in the mistreatment of many.  As one woman reported in a 1981 interview:

I've never so much regretted being born in a woman's body since I joined the ISKCON movement.  I've never been so much criticized, abused, slandered, misunderstood or chastised, because I have this woman's body.  It makes it very difficult to do my service and/or assist others with their service, if they are always thinking about these bodily designations, instead of the constructive things I could do or say to help them in their service and to help this movement go forward.  If you are a single woman (brahmacarini) every man thinks he is an authority and will yell at you if he feels like it.  But, it's worse when you're married, because you have one authority and you have to surrender to his inflexible, lord-it-over nature; whether he is right or wrong, and whether he is nice or cruel about how he relates to you. 

An influential ISKCON leader linked the abuse suffered by women to the hostile social environment that existed within the movement under the influence of ISKCON’s renunciate leadership.

I remember a number of temples which were perfect illustration[s] of the colonial/plantation style of management; they seemed eerily straight out of the pages of Frantz Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth.’  Only in these cases, the sannyasi and brahmachari leaders were the white guys; the women, the n-----s [niggers].  In short, there was widespread exploitation and abuse of women—physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse—and also neglect (Das, Ravindra Svarupa 2000a:4).

            Women’s devalued status also brought about a significant reduction in the types of organizational roles they could assume.  As attitudes turned negative, women found themselves excluded from and forced out of responsible ISKCON positions (Devi Dasi, Jyotirmayi 2002:3).  As the head of ISKCON’s Women’s Ministry suggests, this was done not because they were incompetent, but because they were women. 

In New Vrindaban, I was able to open a bookstore in the basement of the Palace of Gold.  From there, with very little support from the management . . . I was able to distribute a sizeable quantity of Srila Prabhupada’s books. . . .  Unfortunately, like so many previous efforts, it was not to last.  I had just completed a Labor Day weekend of book sales that totalled $10,000 when I was once again informed that it was now time to bring in a more qualified [male] individual.  I will not dwell here on the demoralizing manner in which the transition took place, but I will say that after my departure from the New Vrindaban book store, the sales immediately decreased to less than a tenth of what they had been when it was under my care (Dasi, Sudharma 2000:15).

Another example of how women’s contributions were often diminished can be seen in the differing understandings of men and women successful at book distribution.  Men were routinely acknowledged as "spiritually advanced" by the devotee community for their achievements in distributing Prabhupada’s books.  Other ISKCON members greeted successful male distributors with respect and even awe.  Although success at book distribution did bring recognition to women, they garnered fewer accolades and status.  In the late 1970s, several male book distributors remarked to me that while it was true that women were among the movement’s most accomplished book distributors, this was only because they used their feminine charm and sexuality to their advantage (Rochford 1985:146-47).2 

Given the neglect, abuse, and diminished status accorded devotee women, many knowingly or unknowingly conformed to the negative stereotypes attributed to them.  As one woman who joined ISKCON in the late 1960s recounted: 

Instead of being considered full-fledged devotees, women were considered only as ‘women’ in the most pejorative sense. . . .  Women were considered stupid and incapable and became subject to gross mockery. . . .  Belittled in such a way, lots of women lost confidence in themselves and in their material and spiritual abilities, accepted being deprived of their human dignity and played the part that was expected of them, being brainless, ignorant, and unproductive (Devi Dasi, Jyotirmayi  2002:3-4).3

             Findings from the Centennial Survey reveal further how women’s reconstructed identities influenced their lives within the movement.4   Six in ten (61%) of the 137 female respondents agreed that, “As a woman, I sometimes encounter a degree of sexism in our movement that is a barrier to my spiritual advancement” and nearly one-third (31%) of these strongly agreed.  In addition, three-quarters (77%) agreed that, “Many women devotees suffer from low self-esteem largely because they feel mistreated by devotee men” with one-third (37%) strongly agreeing.  It is worth noting that two-thirds (68%) of the 129 male respondents likewise agreed that mistreatment by men had negatively influenced the self-esteem of devotee women.  

            Clearly, devotee women had reason to stand up against abuse and organizational marginalization but grievances are subject to differential interpretation across individuals, social groups, and time.  It is how grievances are interpreted and how, in turn, emergent frameworks are diffused and gain acceptance or not that is critical to the emergence of collective protest (Snow et al. 1986:465).   As Turner (1969) has argued, the growth of significant social movements demands a revision in the ways that people look at problematic conditions that affect their lives.  Rather than interpreting their lot in life as a matter of misfortune they come to see injustice at work.  Moreover, these sources of injustice must be perceived as mutable and changeable if people are to collectivize in pursuit of common interests.  McAdam (1982:34) refers to this process of reframing problematic conditions from misfortune to injustice as “cognitive liberation.”  For devotee women, injustice emerged only after a thoroughgoing reassessment of their lives as wives, mothers, and ISKCON members.  

Redefining Women’s Lives

e impulse toward activism emerged only as women began a process of critical reflection that for many led to a transformative reinterpretation of their lives and those of their Godsisters.  In reconstructing the meaning of their lives in this way, women engaged in what scholars of social movements refer to as constructing a collective action frame.  Collective action frames are “accenting devices” (Snow and Benford 1992:137) that underscore the seriousness and injustice of problematic social conditions.  In addition, collective action frames serve a diagnostic function by attributing blame to individuals or structures seen as promoting unjust social conditions (Snow and Benford 1992:137). 

            Throughout the 1970s and 1980s both men and women devotees viewed their everyday experiences through a religious lens whereby their entire lives were infused with spiritual meaning.  For women experiencing neglect and abuse this meant interpreting their lives in terms of “renunciation” and “austerity.”  Consider the words of one devotee woman who responded in the following manner after learning that one of her Godsisters had suffered neglect and abusive treatment by her husband.

 The life of a woman in Krishna consciousness is not easy; it is one of austerity.  We must submit to the authority and wishes of our husbands.  Voluntarily accepting these austerities is what makes us glorious and eligible to enter into heaven. . . .  Perhaps (name of abused woman) can take solace in the fact that she followed her husband in austere circumstances.  Whether his desires are right or wrong is not for us to question, because in our unalloyed service to our husbands we are serving the Supreme Lord (Dasi, Yasomati-stanya Payi 2004:1).

Such a response, while consistent with ISKCON’s religious beliefs, undercuts the very possibility of devotee women finding injustice, and not misfortune, at work in their lives.  For in equating “neglect” and “mistreatment” with the “austerities” that define a woman’s religious quest, there is little basis for feeling unjustly wronged.5

The acknowledgement of widespread child abuse within ISKCON dramatically influenced the ways that women considered their lives within ISKCON.  Although many women, like the one quoted above, found ways to attribute spiritual meaning to the hardships they faced, few, if any, could accept the abuse suffered by the movement’s children in the gurukula.  This abuse greatly influenced the views of devotee women, most of whom were mothers.  As in other situations where children are placed at risk (toxic contamination of neighborhoods and communities), mothers are often at the forefront of activism (Brown and Ferguson 1995; Cable 1992; Levine 1982).  This clearly was the case for devotee women when they connected their own organizational marginalization to the tragic abuse suffered by ISKCON’s young people.  As a pro-change activist and leader asserted.  

[T]he widespread disgust with child abuse, and women finally just not taking the nonsense [any longer] have all contributed to the women's voice finally being heard. . . . Admitting to the child abuse—most all of it committed by men, and probably only allowed to go on because of the de-empowerment of women (the mothers)—is admitting to the abuse of women and how the devaluation of them contributed to our problems, socially and with the children.  Gradually that point is dawning on people. (my emphasis; personal communication 1998)

Aligning the two situations of abuse became a critical mobilization strategy of pro-change activists.  At annual women’s conferences attracting audiences of 150 or more women, pro-change advocates repeatedly drew parallels between child abuse and the neglect and abuse of devotee women.  Note, for example, how one pro-change leader linked the two situations of abuse at ISKCON’s first Women’s Conference held in Los Angeles in 1997. 

As a society, we have finally come to understand and accept the abuses our children have suffered in the gurukula system.  I don’t believe we have understood the physical abuses women have suffered . . . from inferior living facilities, to lack of equal prasadam [food] facilities to physical abuses women have suffered in ISKCON.  It is not less significant than the abuse our children have faced (my emphasis; Devi Dasi, Pranada 2002:1).

Pro-change advocates not only sought to reshape the ways devotee women interpreted their ISKCON lives they also highlighted how ISKCON authorities shared significant blame for the misery inflicted on women and children.  The leaders’ strident anti-women and anti-family beliefs marginalized women to such a degree that they remained unaware of ongoing child abuse and incapable of intervening on behalf of their children or themselves.  From the standpoint of pro-change women, ISKCON’s leadership came to represent what Gamson, Fireman, and Rytina (1982) refer to as “unjust authorities.”   Because the GBC is ISKCON’s ultimate governing body, it became a target of women’s indignation.  

Findings from the Prabhupada Centennial Survey presented in Tables 6.1 and 6.2 suggest how anti-women and anti-family attitudes within ISKCON’s social milieu influenced women’s views of the GBC and its authority.  Table 6.1 cross-tabulates women’s assessments of GBC authority with their responses to the statement, “As a woman, I have sometimes encountered a degree of sexism in our movement that is a barrier to my spiritual advancement” (see measures in Appendix 1).  The findings reveal a strong relationship between women’s experiences of sexism and their views of ISKCON’s GBC leadership.  Two-thirds (67%) of the women who agreed strongly that sexism had been a barrier to their spiritual advancement expressed minimal support for the GBC.  In addition, nearly half (45%) who agreed were equally unsupportive of ISKCON’s governing body.  Just as noteworthy is the fact that women whose ISKCON experiences did not include sexism, or whose experiences were not interpreted as such—thus disagreeing with the statement—were far more supportive of the GBC’s authority.


                                    Table 6.1 About Here


Table 6.2 considers GBC authority in relation to women’s responses to the statement, “The needs and problems of householders have been largely ignored by ISKCON’s leadership.”  The findings reveal a strong relationship between women’s perceptions of the leadership’s commitment to family life and their overall assessments of GBC authority.  Particularly telling is the fact that only one in five (18%) women disagreed with the statement.  As indicated in Table 6.2, large percentages of those who agreed or agreed strongly with the statement held low levels of support for the GBC.   By contrast, the minority of women who disagreed with the statement generally supported the GBC.


                                    Table 6.2 About Here



The Problem of Framing Injustice

The question of how pro-change women framed their grievances in an effort to promote collective protest was hardly straightforward.  Rather it proved a difficult undertaking.  While gender equality has become normative in American society (Chaves 1997:50-51) and represents a powerful protest frame for women challengers, it proved of little direct use to ISKCON’s pro-change women.  The reason lies largely with the close association between “gender equality” and feminism.  From the perspective of ISKCON’s traditionalist theology, feminism is symptomatic of the “diseased” secular culture.  In rejecting  “gender equality,” ISKCON affirms its general resistance to modernity as antifeminism stands as one of the defining features of fundamentalist antimodernism (Chaves 1997:105).  For most ISKCON members, including many pro-change women, “feminism” stands for rising rates of divorce, countless abortions, and the general deterioration of the contemporary American family. 

The concept of “rights” posed another problem for pro-change women.  The very idea of “rights” is antithetical to ISKCON’s religious beliefs, as can be seen in the comments of an ISKCON leader otherwise sympathetic to the plight of devotee women.

The whole dialogue about rights/entitlements is a flawed and material conception.  If you study the Vedic culture (Mahabharata, Ramayana) you will find almost nothing on rights.  What you will find is a deep understanding and outline of duties . . . duties of fathers, wives, sons, leaders, children, teachers, etc.  Obviously ours has been a history of the powerful exploiting the weak but the solution may not be to fall back on the often-flawed system of modern society.  (my emphasis; personal communication 1998)

Given the association of  “equality” and “rights” with feminism, pro-change activists had little choice but to search elsewhere for the materials needed to construct a resonant protest frame.  Not surprisingly however, this did not stop opponents from labeling women activists as feminist in an attempt to derail their change efforts.  One activist, for example, reports on her early attempt to persuade ISKCON authorities to reconsider the policy that prohibited women from giving class in the temple.

I put my concerns in writing, finally, in 1984.  That letter was sent to all the GBC members and was published in the Vaisnava Journal.  That letter also sealed my fate, as I stood alone for my Godsisters, as a black sheep of my family.  I was told that I was a demon destroying Prabhupada’s movement, and I received the most controversial label: Pranada is a women’s libber. . . .  And what was my great sin to receive such rejection?  I suggested women should give Bhagavatam classes and were authorized to do so by Srila Prabhupada (Devi Dasi, Pranada 2002:1).   

Time and again women activists faced charges that their “real” agenda was to advance a destructive feminist agenda.  Sensitive to such charges, they often explicitly distanced themselves from any association with feminism.  Such distancing can be seen in the words of two women who spoke to ISKCON’s leadership about women’s issues at the 2000 GBC meetings in India.   One woman prefaced her remarks by saying, “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 . . . we would plead with the GBC to change the philosophy of 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” (Dasi, Saudamani 2000:12).   The head of ISKCON’s Women’s Ministry stated as part of her comments, “you will understand that this is not feminism, but rather a sincere attempt to create an environment conducive to devotional service for Vaisnavis [women devotees]” (Dasi, Sudharma 2000:14).        

            While “equal rights” could not provide the basis of a legitimate protest frame, ISKCON’s religious doctrine proved of limited use as well.  This contrasts sharply with other religious groups where “using doctrine to critique doctrine” (Dillon 1999:164) has been central to the emancipatory projects of women and other aggrieved populations (see Chaves 1997, Dillion 1999).   A recent statistical analysis of Prabhupada’s commentaries relating to women in the Bhagavad Gita and five books of the Bhagavata Purana (i.e., Srimad Bhagavatam), suggests why doctrine proved of limited utility to ISKCON’s pro-change women.  Lorenz’s study (2004:122) found that 80% of Prabhupada’s scriptural commentaries referring to women were “negative” in substance.  Prabhupada routinely refers to women as less intelligent, lusty, inferior, and dangerous to the spiritual advancement of men.  Given these qualities, Prabhupada emphasized that restrictions should be placed on women, that they should be grouped with other socially inferior classes (low class sudras), and, because women are alluring sex objects, that men should scrupulously avoid them.  Prabhupada writes, for example: “Women are generally not very intelligent;”  “Women in general should not be trusted;” and, “Girls should be completely separated from the very beginning.  They are very dangerous. . . .  They should be taught how to sweep, how to stitch . . . clean, cook, to be faithful to the husband.  They should be taught how to become obedient to the husband” (Lorenz 2004:378-79).  

Because Prabhupada’s followers view him as a pure representative of God, most accept his words as literal truth.  In fact, 97% of the 363 men and women that responded to the Centennial Survey agreed that, “I accept as truth Prabhupada’s translations of and commentaries on the Srimad Bhagavatam and other Vedic scriptures.”  This very fact, combined with Prabhupada’s largely derogatory scriptural commentaries about women, led Lorenz (2004:384) to conclude that Prabhupada’s teachings played a direct role in the abuse suffered by ISKCON’s women and children.

In spite of Prabhupada’s largely derogatory characterizations of women, pro-change women did discover some scriptural support to further their cause.  Far more significant however, was Prabhupada’s personal example in dealings with his earliest women disciples.  It was in these encounters between Prabhupada and his early women disciples that pro-change women unearthed the critical ingredients to construct a viable collective action frame.  The telling and retelling of  “Prabhupada stories” by Prabhupada’s earliest female disciples went a long way in reshaping women’s understandings of their lives within ISKCON.  Not only did these stories portray Prabhupada’s respectful attitude and behavior toward his women disciples, but they also indirectly revealed how ISKCON’s leadership had misinterpreted or otherwise misused their guru’s instructions and teachings.  In hearing these anecdotal accounts, women came to realize that their rights and interests as women and devotees had been sacrificed to further the religious and political agenda of ISKCON’s renunciate leadership.  

Constructing and Diffusing a Protest Frame

Women activists sought to redirect the focus away from Prabhupada’s strongly worded scriptural commentaries about women by emphasizing Prabhupada’s “social application of Krishna Conscious principles” (Devi Dasi, Jyotirmayi 2002:5).  For Prabhupada had acknowledged the significance of teachings emerging in his interactions with his disciples.  In 1975, Prabhupada argued against a GBC opinion that only his books and taped lectures should be taken as definitive of his teachings.  Prabhupada reportedly replied, “No, what I say in talks also, many things I say are not in my books” (quoted in Devi Dasi, Jyotirmayi 2002:5). 

When Prabhupada came to the United States in 1965 he did the unthinkable from the perspective of his Godbrothers in India: he accepted women as members of his fledgling movement.  This included offering them formal initiation as his disciples.  Prabhupada justified these decisions by appealing to the notion of “time, place, and circumstance.”  As he wrote in the Chaitanya Charitamrta:

An acarya who comes for the service of the Lord cannot be expected to conform to a stereotype, for he must find the ways and means by which Krishna Consciousness may be spread.  Sometimes jealous persons criticize the Krishna Consciousness movement because it engages both boys and girls in distribution of love of Godhead.  Not knowing that boys and girls in countries like Europe and America mix freely, these fools and rascals criticize the boys and girls in Krishna Consciousness for intermingling.  But these rascals should consider that one cannot suddenly change a community’s social customs (Ch, 7, purport of verses 32 and 38; quoted in Devi Dasi, Jyotirmayi 2002:1).

In accepting women into his temples and conferring on them the status brahmacarini, Prabhupada extended the same rights and duties to them as his male disciples.  As one woman who joined ISKCON in 1968 remarked, “The women devotees had exactly the same spiritual activities, the same tasks, the same possibilities to progress spiritually and they were entitled to the same respect” (Devi Dasi, Jyotirmayi 2002:2).  Prabhupada allowed women to accompany and serve him when traveling, to lead kirtans in the temple, to give classes and public lectures, to perform public aratis, to stand and sit on one side of the temple rather than being relegated to the back, to write articles in ISKCON magazines and publications, to chant alongside of men in the temple, and to take on significant institutional positions within ISKCON.  As one of Prabhupada’s earliest women disciples recounted.

For many years, in different countries and circumstances, I had the good fortune to render personal service to him [Prabhupada].  He trained me, urged me to accept more and more responsibility, and regularly asked me to lead kirtanas, give classes, arrange programmes, manage departments, provide comforts for visiting devotees, meet with leaders, and actively promulgate Krsna consciousness (Devi Dasi, Yamuna 2000:6).6

Yet, as we have seen, when Prabhupada began turning the reins of leadership over to a growing number of sannyasis, women’s lives changed dramatically.  These changes first appeared in North America before diffusing to Europe and other portions of the ISKCON world.  As one woman who lived in France at the time recounted:

[A] note on the temple room door said that women devotees were forbidden to lead kirtans or to give class.  Then they were forbidden to circumambulate Tulasi [spiritual plant worshiped in the morning] with the men devotees, could not chant japa in the temple room, had to stay behind the men in the temple during kirtans, classes, Harinama [congregational chanting].  Each of their important responsibilities [was] removed, as well as their rights to offer aratis to Prabhupada (Devi Dasi, Jyotirmayi 2002:2).

These and related changes appear to have occurred without Prabhupada’s blessing, although few devotees were aware of this until years later.  Evidence suggests that on a number of occasions Prabhupada admonished sannyasis and brahmacharies for their efforts to marginalize or otherwise mistreat his women disciples.

On various occasions, brahmacaries complained to Srila Prabhupada they were [sexually] agitated by the presence of women in the temple, and Srila Prabhupada replied that if they could not restrain their senses, they should go live alone in the forest. [Prabhupada wrote] ‘Regarding the disturbance made by the women devotees, they are also living beings.  They also come to Krishna. . . .  If our male members, the brahmacaries and sannyasis, if they become steady in Krishna Consciousness, there is not [a] problem’ (Devi Dasi, Jyotirmayi 2002:7).

In 1973 and 1974 when women were no longer allowed to give classes in the temple a number of women complained to Prabhupada.  He wrote to one of his female disciples.

[Y]ou can also keep giving Bhagavatam class if you like.  Women in our movement can also preach very nicely.  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 Krsna then he is to be accepted as guru. . . .  The qualification for leading class is how much one understands about Krsna and surrendering to the process.  Not whether one is male or female7 (Prabhupada 1992:2585).

            Pro-change woman used the anecdotal accounts of senior devotee women to argue that Prabhupada was not sexist in his dealing with his female disciples.  Rather Prabhupada’s personal example demonstrated clearly his strong support for them.  Because of this, pro-change women insisted that Prabhupada would never have given his support to the discriminatory and abusive practices implemented by ISKCON’s renunciate leadership.

A highly publicized conflict between devotee women and renunciate males in Vrndavana, India in 1999 reveals clearly how pro-change activists have successfully used Prabhupada’s example to defend women against abuse.  The occasion was Kartika (a major festival) that annually attracts large numbers of Western devotees, including many women.  On these occasions the ISKCON temple in Vrndavana normally fills to capacity, thus constraining the ability of worshippers to approach the altar to take darsana of (to view) the deities.  Immediately prior to the festival, temple authorities changed the darsana policies limiting women’s access to the altar.  This shift in temple etiquette was reportedly made at the request of sannyasis and brahmacaries who had grown weary of women moving forward to view the deities in a space normally reserved for them during the morning arati.  Because temple authorities failed to consult with the women in attendance, few were even aware of the new darsana policies (Das, Abhirama 2000:1).  Over the course of several days, renunciate men actively sought to limit women’s access to the altar.  They reportedly organized themselves shoulder-to-shoulder the length of the altar to keep the women from viewing the deities.  Testimonies by those present suggest that some of the men were “physically abusive,” kicking and pushing women in proximity to the altar  (Das, Abhirama 2000:2).  The event elicited numerous responses by men and women on both sides of the issue.  Various women aligned with the pro-change movement expressed outrage.  They also invoked Prabhupada’s example to demonstrate the injustice of the situation. 

Certain men feel it is not Vedic for women to be in the front [near the altar], and that it is more appropriate to facilitate sannyasis’ and brahmacaris’ darsana.  Neither local custom nor examples set by Srila Prabhupada obligates ISKCON managers to enforce a rule that women cannot take darsana in the front.   Temples all over the Indian [sub] continent allow women darsana up front. . . .  Why do certain ISKCON temples in India insist on this unwritten rule?  It has been claimed that Prabhupada did not allow women darsana up front.  However several senior women disciples (names cited) . . . recollect being in the front [of the temple] in Vrndavana when Prabhupada was present (Dasi, Pranada 1999:1-2).

Pro-change activists also used Prabhupada’s interactions with his female disciples in another important way.  These exchanges provided a basis for distilling new meaning from Prabhupada’s otherwise unsympathetic scriptural commentaries about women.  At issue was whether Prabhupada’s philosophical writings about women were meant to be inclusive of his female disciples.  Accounts such as the following suggested not to advocates of change.   

[O]ne such exchange is what I called the Canakya Pandita episodes.  I was present on four occasions when Srila Prabhupada repeated the Canakya adage: ‘Never trust a woman or a politician.’  On each occasion Srila Prabhupada looked me in the eye to see my response.  On the last occasion, in Bombay in 1973, he quoted the saying, heartily laughing in front of a small group of men.  Then he said: ‘What do you think, Yamuna?’  Immediately I retorted: ‘Of course it is true, Srila Prabhupada,’ whereupon he became grave, looked at me with great feeling, and said, ‘But you are not a woman, you are Vaisnava’ (Devi Dasi, Yamuna 2000:6; my emphasis).

Another devotee woman recounted:

When Srila Prabhupada first said in class that for a man, association with a woman is dangerous because she makes him lose control over his senses, the male devotees started acting very nastily with the women of that particular temple.  The ladies expressed their pain to Prabhupada who then called in all the men and said: ‘I was talking of materialistic women, not of the women of the movement.  They are angels’ (Devi Dasi, Jyotirmayi 2002:7; my emphasis).

In hearing the many accounts underscoring Prabhupada’s fondness and respect for his female disciples, many women throughout ISKCON realized that neither religious tradition nor Prabhupada himself were responsible for the plight of ISKCON’s women.  Rather Prabhupada's teachings about women had been misinterpreted and/or misused by a leadership determined to maintain its control over ISKCON’s unconventional religious world.  In coming to this conclusion, many began to embrace the pro-change cause.  As one woman who helped organize ISKCON’s initial Women’s Conferences stated:

I think the mobilization of women and their issues has increased because of the educating we have been doing.  It was a widespread belief that the status quo of women in ISKCON was Prabhupada's doing.  It has become increasingly evident that this is not the case.  Therefore, changing it and questioning it has become acceptable.  Indeed, ten years ago no one would hear the discussion because it was heretical against Prabhupada.  Now I would venture to say that there are a rising number of people convinced that what happened to women in ISKCON was NOT what Prabhupada intended.  That was a big shift.  So education, communication, discussion has done a lot to change the atmosphere among women devotees. (her emphasis; personal communication 1998)

Not only did education bring a radical shift in devotee women’s understandings of their ISKCON lives, it also taught them basic tactics of dissent, as well as the confidence to act on their convictions.  As a pro-change leader stated at the first Women’s Conference in Los Angeles:

Whatever the cost of our personal social status, let’s not remain silent in even one negative Bhagavatam class, in even one negative conversation.  Let’s use every method of communication to raise consciousness.  Let us no longer tolerate psychological abuses or the de-empowerment of [women] (Devi Dasi, Pranada 2002:3).

Organizational Decline and Women’s Labor

Since the early 1970s men exclusively have held positions of institutional responsibility within ISKCON.  This began to change however when the collapse of communalism forced devotee men into the outside labor market in support of their families.  Stripped of prestige, money, and authority, few devotee men stepped forward to serve in these administrative positions.  In the face of mounting labor shortages, ISKCON’s communities began turning to women to serve as temple presidents, managers, and local, national and international administrators.8   As they did, the women’s pro-change agenda began to appeal to growing numbers of men and women throughout the movement. 

Two devotee women and Prabhupada disciples offer the following description and analysis concerning the relationship between ISKCON’s (literally) manpower shortages and the increasing institutional opportunities afforded devotee women. 

In most temples there is a severe shortage of manpower and of male devotees willing to take up responsibilities.  There are less men overall, and among those present, less are willing now to take up responsible positions. . . .  So women are invited to take up responsibilities more and more, because there is nobody else to do the job.  If there would be available men, we have no doubt or illusion that they would get a chance first.  We are not so naive to think that the men leaders appreciate us so much more than in the past; in a way they became forced by circumstances to engage us and give us more responsibilities (personal communication 1998).

These two women go on to say that while there are devotee men who support women holding responsible ISKCON positions that, "Maybe Krishna is tricking them a little bit."  Organizational circumstances have essentially forced ISKCON’s male hierarchy to turn to women’s labor for the sake of running temples.

            Another devotee woman reflects on the dilemma she faced when she was asked to assume new responsibilities within a local ISKCON temple.

Before leaving (location), I was asked to take up two important posts of responsibilities, to my great astonishment, in the very temple where I had suffered so much, attending tulasi puja in the cold outside the temple in the winter time, and never being invited to give a class, which I love to do.  When they asked me to take up these posts, I thought they were really desperate, and had quite some guts to ask, knowing my feeling on the matter (personal communication 1998).

In a position of decline and facing substantial shortages of manpower, ISKCON’s leaders had little choice but to turn to women to manage temples and to assume other critical organizational roles.  As a result, traditionalist ideas concerning women became increasingly difficult to sustain and most were set aside or otherwise reinterpreted to allow women to fill positions within ISKCON's management structure.   The Centennial Survey indicates that in 1996 three-quarters of all women and two-thirds of all men agreed that qualified women should have the opportunity to serve in positions of temple president and GBC representative.  Moreover it appears that gender attitudes are changing more broadly among rank and file members.  As revealed in Table 6.3, both men and women reject important elements of ISKCON’s traditionally defined gender ideology.  Although there are significant differences between the sexes with respect to strength of agreement, both generally embrace equality for women.  Women and men agree that women should be allowed to chant in the temple with men, have equal access to the deities during worship, and have the same opportunities as men for realizing their potential in devotional service (work within ISKCON).  In addition, both agree that performance not gender should be the criteria for placement in a given ISKCON position.  Moreover, both sexes agreed that women are the spiritual equals of men and that Prabhupada never intended for women devotees to be treated as other than equal to devotee men.   Lastly, there is strong agreement that male attitudes have become more accepting of devotee women over time.


                                     Table 6.3 about here


Considered as a whole, the findings from the Centennial Survey confirm that ISKCON’s traditionalist gender ideology has lost appeal among wide portions of the movement’s membership.  Pragmatic organizational needs have made it impossible to sustain traditional ideas that women are "unintelligent," "incapable," and "a threat to men," when they are increasingly called on to assume demanding administrative work on behalf of ISKCON and its communities.  The ideals that define the pro-change women's agenda (equal standing with men spiritually and materially; performance being the relevant criteria rather than gender, and so on) are increasingly compatible with ISKCON's need for skilled female labor in the absence of men.   In sum, the content of women's resurgent voices has increasingly been incorporated into both ISKCON's organizational and religious cultures.

Political Opportunity and Gender Reform

Scholars of social movements and political protest have often been perplexed about the timing of insurgency.  Frequently groups of people suffering from extreme and unjust hardships fail to mobilize in pursuit of their common interests.  In other cases, people organize effective protest groups when grievances appear less severe.  The question is why?  One response is that protest activity is more likely to occur when political elites are under siege, internally fragmented and thereby unable to act collectively to crush or otherwise undermine dissent.   In other words, when elites are in disarray greater opportunities exist for staging protest activity, and for such challenges to prove successful.  As political scientist Sidney Tarrow describes, political opportunity structures are "dimensions of the political environment that provide incentives for people to undertake collective action by affecting their expectations for success or failure" (1994:85).   

            Years of scandal and controversy surrounding ISKCON’s gurus and GBC leadership clearly have taken their toll on members’ perceptions of these institutions (Das, Ravindra Svarupa 2000b; Goswami, Tamal Krishna 1998; Rochford 1998b).   As we have seen, the leaders’ anti-women and anti-family stance further eroded the authority of both institutions in the eyes of many devotee women.  As one guru, GBC member, and ISKCON scholar notes: 

And now the GBC has become very, very weak.  The principal reason for this has been the fall-down of spiritual masters and the decay of spiritual authority in general.  This applies to sannyasis, gurus, and the GBC.  There has been a big overlap of these three categories, and they are all in disrepute.  The renounced order of life has come to be called the denounced order of life—we hear that all the time.  People are very dubious about gurus—everyone is wondering when the next one is going to fall.  And the GBC seems to be floundering and cannot do anything about it.  There is a feeling that we do no know where our vision is going to come from (Das, Ravindra Svarupa 2000b:38).

The fragility of ISKCON’s institutions of authority provided various pro-change groups with the political opportunity needed to push for change.  Perhaps the most significant has been the emergence of the ritvik movement, to be discussed in Chapter 8, which has challenged the very legitimacy of ISKCON’s guru leadership (Desai et al, 2004; Rochford 1998a).   Yet other challenging groups, including women and youths abused in the gurukula, have successfully organized to pressure for change.   Fragmented and weak, ISKCON’s authorities have been forced to negotiate reforms, rather than to actively resist.  For women this has meant a progressive expansion of their “rights,” including greater opportunities to take part in ISKCON’s religious and organizational life.

            In 1996, the GBC approved the creation of the International Women’s Ministry.  Bowing to local pressures by pro-change women, some temples in North America began allowing women to serve on the altar, worship with men on different sides of the temple, and chant collectively with men in the temple room.  Less frequently, women could be found giving the morning class on Prabhupada’s scriptural commentaries and leading congregational chanting in the temple.  In a move of considerable symbolic significance, a senior woman was elected to serve as a GBC representative in 1998.  Moreover, two women served as temple presidents in the United States in 1998 with several others serving in the same capacity in Western Europe (Dasi, Visakha and Dasi, Sudharama 2000:3).  In addition, women held other significant administrative positions at the local, national, and international temple levels.  For instance, one woman was elected as the executive officer for ISKCON in North America in 1995.

In 1998, the then chairman of the GBC openly acknowledged the mistreatment of devotee women in a letter widely circulated throughout the movement. 

We have not offered proper protection and respect to the women in our movement.  We have not understood woman’s role as mother of society.  We have hurt women by insisting they behave according to Vedic standards, yet we have not been able to offer the proper standard of Vedic protection.  (Letter from the Executive Committee of the GBC, signed by Harikesa Swami, June 1998). 

            A number of significant gender reforms occurred following the incident in Vrndavana, India reported on earlier.  After repeated attempts by the Women’s Ministry to have the GBC examine the plight of women in ISKCON, this event forced the issue given the widespread publicity it received.  For the first time, the GBC heard presentations by representatives of the Women’s Ministry.  In March of 2000, seven senior women spoke to members of the GBC about the legacy of neglect and abuse suffered by ISKCON women.  In the aftermath of these presentations, the GBC adopted a number of official resolutions aimed at recognizing “the value of women in ISKCON and ensuring their rights to fully participate in the Society according to their abilities and wishes” (Dasi, Visakha and Dasi, Sudharma 2000:20).  The GBC acknowledged “the mistakes of the past and the need to provide equal and full opportunity for devotional service for all devotees in ISKCON, regardless of gender.”  (my emphasis; GBC Resolutions, Section 501, 2000).  The GBC also recognized, “that many of the social issues that confront us are exacerbated because the voices of our women, who are the mothers and daughters of our Krsna conscious family, have been hushed and stifled owing to misinterpretation of our Vaisnava philosophy” (GBC Resolutions, Section 501, 2000).9  The resolutions mandated that all qualified devotees, regardless of gender, could speak on the Vedic scriptures during regular temple classes.  Moreover, all of ISKCON’s worldwide temples were required to designate half the temple room area, divided in the center from the altar, for women (GBC Resolution, Section 618, 2000).    


exploitation and abuse of women is an unfortunate part of religious history and several contemporary new religions have been linked to the mistreatment and abuse of women (Chancellor 2000; Downing 2001; Jacobs 1984, 1987; Palmer 1994).  Research addressing the abuse of women within new religions has focused largely on how these experiences have brought about disillusionment and subsequent defection (Jacobs 1984, 1987).  Yet many women suffering neglect and abuse have chosen not to leave their religious groups.  Some have chosen to stay and fight the injustices they face.  The obvious question is why they have remained, given the seriousness of the hardships they encountered?  One answer that emerges from the discussion in this chapter is that women may maintain their membership because of the strength of their commitment to a charismatic leader.  Female disciples of Prabhupada sought to bring about change in the lives of devotee women, but they also sought to exonerate their guru from any wrongdoing in the abuse that occurred. 

Jacobs’ research on the process by which women voluntarily separate from religious movements indicates that defection is a two-stage process.  Social defection involves the demise of group commitment and the disintegration of social bonds; emotional defection the rejection of the religious leader and his religious philosophy (Jacobs 1987:297-98).  Total deconversion occurs only when an individual’s crisis of faith escalates to the degree that the leader’s religious authority comes to be perceived as “less than godly” (Jacobs 1987:300).   Yet challenges to “unjust” authority are only rarely directed at a charismatic leader.  Rather, members tend to direct their disillusionment toward leaders who occupy “the middle level hierarchy” (Jacobs 1987:298), such as ISKCON’s GBC.  It is these leaders who normally shoulder the responsibility of carrying out the directives and plans of the group’s charismatic founder.  By targeting these leaders and their abuses of power, members are able to maintain the sanctity of the charismatic bond, even in the face of unspeakable abuse and neglect.  

ISKCON’s pro-change activists engaged in political struggle in a clear attempt to bring about necessary changes in the lives of devotee women.  But these very attempts also served to reaffirm the charismatic bond between themselves and their guru, Srila Prabhupada.  In demonstrating that Prabhupada was not behind the abusive practices that so radically shaped women’s lives in the 1970s and 1980s, women activists preserved Prabhupada’s integrity both for themselves and for a new generation of women who have committed their lives to Prabhupada and his movement.  Perhaps ironically, their activism also helped save a failing organization as the reshaping of gender attitudes allowed women to take on responsible positions in the midst of a labor crisis.  

            Although pro-change women successfully achieved significant gender reforms, the forces of resistance were gathering strength as well.  The next chapter considers the emergence of male backlash.  For just as women had begun to see positive results from their activism, a group of traditionally-minded men were organizing to undermine their political gains. 

Notes to Chapter 6

1.   Knott (1995) argues that the acceptance of conventional attitudes favoring gender equality by scholars and movement insiders has unduly influenced assessments of women’s lives within ISKCON.  Use of such conventional criteria virtually assures a critical conclusion and one that distorts ISKCON’s purpose and mission.  In resisting conventional gender roles, ISKCON seeks to draw a boundary between itself and the modern world.  This and related challenges to dominant beliefs and lifestyles is what distinguishes ISKCON as a new religion (see Bromley 2004; Rochford 2006).  My interest here is in if, and how, activist women have drawn on conventional notions of “gender equality” in their efforts to promote social change.  

             2.  Both men and women used a variety of interactional strategies meant to maximize their success at distributing Prabhupada’s books and other products in public locations.   Some of these practices were deceitful and highly controversial both in and outside of the movement (Rochford 1985:171-189).  The public controversy further rigidified ISKCON’s public image as a deviant and threatening cult (Rochford 1985:186). 

3.  The author also notes that because of the degrading ways devotee women were seen and treated, intelligent women stopped joining ISKCON.  Moreover, this mistreatment generated considerable “bad press” for the movement (Devi Dasi, Jyotirmayi, 2002:4). 

4.   Survey data presented throughout the chapter do not include Asian-Indians.  I have chosen to exclude Indian respondents because they were neither involved in nor directly affected by the issues discussed here.  The influence of Indian-Hindus on ISKCON’s evolving religious culture is discussed in Chapter 9.

5.  This statement produced a number of challenging responses on the Internet from women supportive of a pro-change agenda.  Note how in the following response “austerity” and the need “to submit to authority” are radically reinterpreted. 

I thought that not much could shock me anymore. . . .  But this left me completely speechless and stunned.  It is mindblowing that someone even considered neglect and abuse as a means for spiritual advancement. . . .  Please, I beg women in ISKCON to educate themselves in the differences between assisting someone in their spiritual life, and being a victim of emotional, spiritual, [and] physical abuse (Dasi, Subhadra-mayi 2004:1).

As discussed later in the chapter, pro-change women actively sought to educate other women in an attempt to facilitate the interpretive shift apparent in the above woman’s comments. 

6.  Opponents have disputed the significance of these accounts depicting Prabhupada’s interactions with his earliest female disciples.  None of these early interactions were tape-recorded and thus they rely on the memories of the women involved.  This stands in stark contrast to later years when virtually all of Prabhupada’s lectures and personal conversations were tape-recorded and thus preserved.  Some critics have also noted that during ISKCON’s early days, Prabhupada only gradually introduced the rules and regulations of Krishna Consciousness to his to followers.  As one critic commented, “Srila Prabhupada was never more lenient than he was in the 60s and early 70s” (Devi Dasi, Sita 2002:1).   Although there is truth in this statement (see Goswami, Satsvarupa Dasa 1980; Rochford 1985:155-56), it is also true that these anecdotal accounts were convincing to many women who sided with pro-change activists. 

7.  The last sentence of this letter reads, however, “Of course women, generally speaking are less intelligent, better she has heard nicely then she will speak nicely” (Prabhupada 1992:2585).  This line was omitted when Jyotirmayi Devi Dasi (2002:9) quoted the letter in her influential paper outlining the history of women during Prabhupada’s times.  Such an omission means little to my argument here as I am concerned with the discourse of dissent rather than with the accuracy of that discourse.  Obviously, for ISKCON members opposed to the pro-change agenda, such an omission has very different connotations.

8.  I should emphasize that devotee women have always been a vital source of labor within ISKCON’s communities.  In addition to distributing Prabhupada’s books and preaching in public, they have contributed in significant ways to the day-to-day functioning of temple communities.  The difference now is that women are being called on to perform tasks traditionally allocated to men.  Such a pattern parallels conventional denominations that have granted women ordination because of male clergy shortages (Chaves 1997; Nesbitt 1997).

9.  Immediately following the GBC meetings many felt it would be a gesture of goodwill to allow a woman for the first time to give Srimad-Bhagavatam class in the temple in Mayapura, India where the GBC meetings were being held.  The temple authorities strongly opposed the idea, arguing that this was against local custom and would negatively influence the local people’s views of ISKCON.  After heated debate the temple authorities relented and a senior woman was allowed to give the class.  Such a response points to the ways that gender equality remained a contentious issue in spite of reform.

Table 6.1.  “Sexism is a Barrier to My Spiritual Advancement” by Authority of GBCa








Agree Strongly


67% (28)

19% (8)


14% (6)

0% (0)

100% (42)



45% (19)

24% (10)

14% (6)

17% (7)

100% (42)



18% (7)

33% (13)

20% (8)

30% (12)

101% (40)

Disagree Strongly


  8% (1)

15% (2)

8% (1)

69% (9)

 100% (13)


40% (55)

24% (33)

15% (21)

20% (28)

 99% (137)

a Significant at  p<.001

Table 6.2  “Needs and Problems of Householders Largely Ignored by Leadership” by Authority of the GBC  (for Women Only)a

Householders Ignored







Agree Strongly


53% (29)

24% (13)


16% (9)

7% (4)

100% (55)



38% (23)

27% (16)

15% (9)

20% (12)

100% (60)



 17% (4)

 9% (2)

17% (4)

57% (13)

100% (23)

Disagree Strongly


  0% (0)

50% (1)

0% (0)

50% (1)

 100% (2)


40% (56)

23% (32)

16% (22)

21% (30)


 a Significant at  p<.001

Table 6.3.  Select Agree-Disagree Items Regarding Women’s Roles within ISKCON By Gender.







Agree            Agree



Agree            Agree


Women and men should be able to chant japa together in the Temple.



 49%                34%

 (76)                (52)


 23%                53%

 (55)                (128)

Men and women should worship on different sides of the temple so that both have equal access to the Deities.



 49%                35%

 (72)                 (51)


 31%                51%

 (74)                (120)

Women should have the same opportunities as men to realize their full potential in devotional service.


 73%                24%

(111)               (36)

 53%                42%

 (131)              (104)


Performance not gender should determine who is placed in a given ISKCON position.


 62%                28%

 (91)                (41)

  45%               39%

  (106)              (92)

Women are the spiritual equals of men.


 66%               29%

 (100)              (44)

  49%               45%

 (120)              (110)


Prabhupada never intended for women to be treated as if they were less than equal to men.


 61%               28%

 (90)               (41)

  39%               45%

  (91)               (107)

Over the past several years I have seen the attitude of devotee men toward women devotees become more accepting.

7%                76%

(10)               (105)

  9%                 80%

 (20)                (172)