"Okay, but don't change the maha-mantram"
by Ananda das
Posted December 10, 2002


ISKCON Victoria, B.C.

Sometimes, at sea, the Coast Guard feels compelled to fire a projectile across the bow of a ship that will not respond to more moderate, civil yet firm demands to stop and accept a boarding party. Such an action is never undertaken lightly; it is the last recourse before directly attacking the offending ship and seizing it by force, or sinking it, should such a drastic measure become necessary.

That Srimati Mira Mishra has despatched a missile as incendiary as her recent open letter to His Holiness Giridhari Swami may be taken as a sign that more measured approaches have failed to persuade ISKCON's Governing Body Commission to turn from its well-documented, lacklustre course or to halt its slide into utter irrelevance.

Devotees have a right to expect thoughtful, progressive leadership from the GBC. By and large, however, such enlightened leadership has not been forthcoming. In the absence of clear leadership from the bridge, the ship of ISKCON, which ought to be a lifeboat for souls adrift on the sea of repeated birth and death, drifts aimlessly sometimes and sails in the wrong direction often.

It is a fact that slightly over one half of the general population consists of women. Accordingly, within a society that attempts to provide spiritual leadership to that general population, half the positions of responsibility must be given to women. These positions may not be mere tokens, but must be meaningful positions that acknowledge women's intellectual, rhetorical, musical, culinary, literary, liturgical and managerial capabilities -- including planning, organization, direction, supervision and delegation -- and which allow women an opportunity to model ideal behaviour for others.

The GBC must begin a phased resignation of at least half its current membership to enable women, gradually but steadily progressing in numbers, to occupy half the seats of this ISKCON general management body within five years. Concurrently with this effort to increase participation by women, the ISKCON regions must begin democratically to elect their representatives. For the sake of continuity only, a number of the current unelected and unrepresentative GBC members may be permitted to retain their seats until elected members have taken their place, and the elections may be held gradually in different regions over the next two to three years. After the five-year phase-in period, all seats on the GBC must be elected, and half the membership must be women.

Because democracy has not progressed far at the local level within ISKCON, and the democratic institution of Isthagosthi has largely languished or been hijacked for purposes unrelated to devotee democracy, it will take some time for local temple leaders to accept the full equality of women in every respect. Until equality of women becomes completely accepted at every level of ISKCON as a conventionally accepted axiom or "self-evident truth", pairs of adjacent ISKCON regions should agglutinate into constituencies, each of which shall be required to pick one woman devotee and one man devotee to represent the combined constituency on the GBC.

Because administrative tasks are an unnecessary and distracting burden for sannyasis, whose actual duties are to study intensively, to reflect deeply, to write spiritual literature and to preach, the first group of devotees to resign from the GBC should predominantly be sannyasis. After a five-year transition to a more rational and representative GBC, sannyasis should be generally prohibited from election to the GBC by ISKCON regions; however, the body of sannyasis may meet separately and choose, if they wish, up to two of their number to represent the college of sannyasis on the GBC.

It is likely that even these democratic measures may not ensure a truly representative GBC. Accordingly, other reserved seats on the GBC should be set aside for achieving this purpose. This would depend on the size of the overall body, but if the GBC were eventually reduced to the more manageable size of perhaps 28 devotees in total, the composition should be as follows: 1 man and 1 woman elected in each of 12 zones, wards, districts or constituencies, plus two sannyasis, plus 1 man and 1 woman elected by worldwide vote of members of the Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association. It is likely that, if there is genuine local democracy in selecting GBC representatives, there would be some rough racial balance among the GBC electees; if this turned out not to be the case, we could look at establishing some set-aside or reserved seats for any unrepresented groups. It might also be a good idea to have special seats representing the Vaishnava Institute for Higher Education, ISKCON Food Relief, the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, etc., but these are minor points which can be worked out within the broad scope of democratic institutions.

The right to stand for election to the GBC should be restricted to people of either sex who pass the Bhakti-shastri examination, so that the protection of our movement is entrusted to people who have displayed a degree of understanding and commitment to our shastra-based philosophy. Ultimately, it would be even better for individuals, for the movement, and for preaching success and academic respectability, if all electors held Bhakti-shastri qualification, and the GBC candidates held one of the more advanced Vaishnava credentials.

With most of Mira prabhu's comments I think almost everyone will agree. If the vernacular presentation of Vaishnava scripture is unacceptable according to normal guides for inclusiveness required of undergraduate students and recognized scholars writing at the baccalaureate or graduate levels, the books must of course be brought into harmony with such guidelines. Because the Vaishnava conception of the Supreme Lord includes both masculine and feminine aspects, there will be little difficulty in achieving the worthwhile goal of eliminating any apparent sexism which has incorrectly crept into the books because of their authorship in an era when prevailing scholarship leaned to concepts such as "the masculine includes the feminine, and vice versa."

People who hold a traditional attachment for present texts, which, in some places, contain sexist language, should realize that while the books are primarily the work of His Divine Grace Nitya-lila-pravista A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad, major transcription and editing tasks were undertaken by initially unqualified disciples, and some of the sexist terms result from this defective process; had the editing been undertaken today by academically trained disciples and grand-disciples of His Divine Grace, inclusive language would certainly have been chosen instead. Furthermore, devotees attached to current wordings also need to realize that while Srila Prabhupada was, and is, unique, unprecedented, unequalled and unfollowed in his abilities to travel the globe to preach and write presentations of timeless shastra; the shastra is indeed timeless and will not be damaged by new recensions incorporating better scholarship, any more than it was damaged by Srila Prabhupada presenting in English what had previously been restricted to Sanskrit or Bengali, or damaged by the efforts of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur to provide respectability to the Vaishnava movement and its texts, or damaged by the progressive ideas of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to reform the prevalent caste system of India. Progress is an ongoing process; proposals to attempt to ossify Vaishnava philosphy within a narrow compass of licenced thought and insulate it from the leaven of new ideas and new presentations will inevitably fail.

When ISKCON devotees start to read the newly more inclusive language of their books, they will subtly begin their own change of heart, which will lead to genuine, and still much-needed, understanding between the sexes. When we become more familiar with the precedents for tolerance and matter-of-fact acceptance of gay and lesbian devotees that are found within the Mahabharata, we will also grow to achieve more kindness, meekness and gentleness, and thus become more mature in our own devotion and more effective in our preaching.

Yes, web outlets which are ISKCON-friendly should also be friendly to individual devotees, and must not permit racism, sexism, homophobia or personally villifying commentary to be published unchallenged or unrebutted.

The GBC has from time to time included non-Caucasians, as well as devotees afflicted by disabilities, including one devotee who lost a leg in India. It does not seem, therefore, that overt discrimination on the basis of race or disability has persisted; it is, however, obvious that the GBC fails to achieve a balance representative of the broader devotee community.

Some might comment that among the GBC are several who suffer morbid obesity, a condition which restricts mobility considerably. Certain GBC members have suffered obvious mental illness, and some have been given to prolonged moody depressions, self-medication with quack nostrums, drug-induced hallucinations and immoral behaviour. These conditions do not normally deserve consideration as "disabilities," and, generally, the GBC has succeeded in purging such people from its ranks; not, however, before these lost souls hurt the "devotional creepers" of many other devotees over whom they incorrectly exercised supervisory authority.

Yes, the GBC should issue a general apology for past errors and wrongs; to their credit, they have already apologized to Pradyumna das prabhu for their instant but wrong-headed dismissal of his pleas not to establish personality cults after the disappearance of Srila Prabhupada. Pradyumna prabhu was proven correct by time and, in apologizing for the worst excesses of the unscriptural "Zonal Acharya System", the GBC set a useful precedent that they can err and that they can make atonement for previous incorrect policies.

Offering women the opportunity to become sannyasis would be a novel departure for Vaishnavism in the present era, but certainly not unprecedented. Other faiths have established institutions which afford women the opportunity to fully dedicate themselves to the celibate service of God -- the Roman Catholics have nuns, most of whom serve with distinction; even in the days of Lord Buddha there were Buddhist nuns who followed a regimen as austere as that of the Buddhist monks. Within Vaishnavism we have also the leadership roles of gurus such as Jahnavi, Gangamata Goswami and, of course, the poet Mirabai, for whom Ms. Mira Mishra is undoubtedly named.

Our society does not allow any man to take sannyas without the permission of his wife; why must the woman who courageously gives such permission be declared a civil widow only? If she has the requisite spiritual strength, celibate determination, shastric knowledge and community commitment to serve as a sannyasi herself, and a present sannyasi considers her worthy to initiate her, she should certainly be afforded the opportunity to take such final vows, with the permission of her husband, if applicable. The concern, as with male sannyasis, is that minor children must not be abandoned. If one member of a couple decides for sannyas with the other's permission and with the approval of a senior initiating sannyasi, provision for the care of minor children must be made. If, as often happens in ISKCON, the wife is actually stronger spiritually than the husband, and the couple is agreed, then she may take sannyas, while he agrees to maintain the remaining dependent family.

Yes, treat Radhastami as of equal importance to Janmastami. Of course. The suggestion is overdue and welcome. Srila Prabhupada stated that we may always INCREASE our service; but we should be very loath indeed to DECREASE it.

The only objection I raise to any part of Mira prabhu's "shot across the bow" is her suggestion to change the wording of the Maha-mantra. The maha-mantra is actually based on a text of the Kalisantara-Upanishad, and to change it would be profoundly unscriptural and could not, therefore, be approved by the acharyas of our movement. However, there is no need to change it, anyway.

Mira prabhu's point, as I understand it, is that the mantra may be somehow defective for only addressing Sri Krsna and Sri Rama, without concurrently also addressing the feminine aspect of the Godhead in the name of Radharani Devi and Sitarani Devi. However, her presumed objection is invalid, because "Hare", as Srila Prabhupada has explained it, quoting Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur, is the vocative form of the name "Hara", and Hara refers directly to the consort of God, to the feminine aspect of God. There is thus no way to chant Hare Krishna, Hare Rama -- invoking the Supreme Energetic -- without simultaneously invoking the Supreme Energy or Pleasure Potency of the Lord in the form of Radharani and Sita Devi.

So, dear prabhu, your letter is mostly okay, but just, please, chant

"Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare;
Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare,"

and your life will certainly be sublime.

With best wishes,
Ananda das