Participation, Protection, and Patriarchy
An International Model for Women's Roles in ISKCON

by Radha devi dasi
Reposted November 29, 2002

This paper examines the question of what constitute appropriate roles for women in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). I use concepts developed in international law in this examination and I begin by explaining the benefits of a model which incorporates international law. The second section of this paper addresses the relationship of human rights law to our own Vaisnava philosophy and raises problems in our treatment of women up to this point. In section three I discuss the kind of rights that human rights law embodies. Section four considers the application of those human rights in ISKCON and looks at the issue of protection of women from an international rights perspective. The concluding section highlights actions which ISKCON should take in order to ensure appropriate roles for women.

Section I

The benefits of International Law

The first, and most important benefit of an international law approach in defining roles for women in ISKCON, is that it gives us a coherent framework for resolving many different tensions. The question of women's roles includes a number of different considerations and impacts our society as a whole. It is in some sense artificial to divide our analysis into "men's issues" and "women's issues," because the treatment of women affects every member of ISKCON, regardless of gender - women are wives, mothers, sisters and service colleagues to men. Moreover, the question of women's roles in ISKCON raises other questions, such as the relationship of our leaders to ISKCON's members and the obligations of the individual to ISKCON as an institution. International law provides an existing model which allows us to integrate these various concerns into a coherent analysis.

The second benefit of international law is that it allows us to create needed cultural variations in our practices. ISKCON is an international organization facing cultural variations in different regions of the world. If we are going to be an effective organization for all people, and for women in particular, then we have to be sensitive to cultural variations. Srila Prabhupada expressed this thought most easily and eloquently by saying we have to be attentive to time, place and circumstance.

International law has already looked at these cultural variations, and created a way of allowing people some flexibility to tailor a policy to their particular region while maintaining a structure that keeps any adjustment from sacrificing underlying goals.

I do not advocate that we take principles of international law and replace our own philosophy with international law. However, I contend that we can effectively use international law to develop a model within which we can test our adherence to our own philosophy. We have numerous written sources of religious principles, in addition to the examples implicit in the actual behavior of Srila Prabhupada. It is our task to integrate this wealth of instruction into a coherent policy on women in ISKCON. One part of our problem, particularly in our treatment of women, is that we have focused on one or two instructions, taking them out of context. We have also used certain words arbitrarily without understanding what those words actually mean. Finally, we have made sweeping statements as justification for our policies even though those statements do not reflect our actual activity. Consequently, we need to revisit this issue of women's participation in a thoughtful and rigorous manner.

Law gives us the tools by which we can integrate numerous instructions on individual issues. Law also teaches us to define our terms and to test our rhetoric against our actions. The need to accomplish these goals is peculiarly apparent when we examine women's roles in ISKCON. Some of Srila Prabhupada's statements about women have been over-emphasized to the exclusion of other, contrary statements. As a result, our policies on women's issues are out of balance. The particular nature of the misconceptions about women which we have developed in ISKCON is further developed in Sections Two and Four of this paper.

Section Two

Human Rights Law and Vaisnava Philosophy

International law is a particularly useful tool for ISKCON because there is a theoretical similarity between human rights law and our own sastra. That similarity is the idea of equality. In some sense it's ironic for members of ISKCON to discuss equality between men and women because we have not seen much of it in practice. However, the principle of spiritual equality is definitely described in our scriptures. There is a similar concept in international law.

International human rights law rests on the principle that everyone is entitled to certain fundamental things because all human beings share the same essence and that essence is somehow sacred. This fundamental sacrality is also described in our own sastra. Krishna goes even a little farther in the Bhagavad Gita when he says that the enlightened sage sees a brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog eater with equal vision. In the related purport, Srila Prabhupada explains that this equal vision arises from the fact that all living entities have the same essence and we all have the same relationship to Krishna. There is, thus, an obvious philosophical basis on which to compare our sastra and international human rights law.

Having made that very obvious point, I want to talk about the level at which we, as a society, have not yet accepted this principle of equality. There is a belief prevalent in ISKCON that souls in women's bodies are not equal, but suffer instead from serious mental and emotional deficits. We are seen as being less intelligent, untrustworthy and over emotional. Jyotirmayi devi dasi thoroughly described in her paper, "Women in ISKCON in Srila Prabhupada's Times," all of these misconceptions about women and explained through Srila Prabhupada's own writings exactly why they are misconceptions.

A very brief examination of Srila Prabhupada's statements reveals that he did not view his female disciples as being less intelligent or able than his male disciples. In the Caitanya Caritamrita, Srila Prabhupada described his disciples, saying, " . . . both boys and girls are being trained to become preachers . . . these girls are not ordinary girls, but are as good as their brothers who are preaching Krsna consciousness."

Srila Prabhupada made a similar statement about equality between Vaisnavas and Vaisnavis in a lecture in which he described how women, vaisyas and sudras are transformed through Krsna consciousness.

"Not that even though they become interested, they keep behind. No. . . with equal force with men, they also promoted. So Kunti, out of her humbleness, meekness, she is presenting herself that 'We are women, striya.' But she's not ordinary woman. She's devotee. Similarly, any devotee woman is as good as Kunti."

Srila Prabhupada never intended his female disciples to be disparaged on the basis of their bodily forms. Rather, he clearly instructed us that women engaged in the practice of Krsna consciousness make equal advancement with male devotees. Indeed, to believe otherwise would indicate a profound lack of faith in the process of Krsna consciousness.

However, the belief that women are inferior is still reflected in our policy and in our practice. Women are dehumanized and devalued by our rhetoric and by accusations used to marginalize them. At the Vaisnavis in ISKCON Conference, one woman described how she was marginalized when she spoke out on the need for women to give Bhagavatam class. She said it was the end of her career in ISKCON management. Having lived in the same community, I can speak from personal experience on her treatment. Many of us women who looked to her as a leader were told that she did not want to give Bhagavatam class, that she was more interested in making money than in working in ISKCON management. Thus, she was presented as avaricious and the true facts of her conflict with ISKCON management were concealed.

Similarly, I have heard the Women's Ministry described as a "group of women who never cover their heads." This statement, in addition to being inaccurate, misses an important point. The real issue is the purpose and effectiveness of the Women's Ministry; the extent to which the Women's Ministry does or does not propose and implement sensible, useful policy for ISKCON. The fact that some members of the Women's Ministry may adjust small externalities in their dress according to time, place, and circumstance should not determine the value of the Women's Ministry as a whole. The need to separate Krishna consciousness from external rituals has been the subject of much discussion in our sampradaya. Similarly, this external consideration is not the proper measure by which to judge the Women's Ministry.

There are even more insidious, subtle, day-to-day minimizations of women that may be harder to observe. The language we use marginalizes women. When we say "devotees and matajis," we are saying that women are in a category separate from devotees. And that statement creates a psychological space in which women can be ranked just a little bit lower than the rest of the Vaisnavas, who oddly enough turn out to be all men. Clearly, not everybody uses the statement in such a negative way, and the distinction may be made in a mood of genuine respect. However, the language creates the space in which minimization of women is possible. Those of us who are immature and have not completely overcome our conditioning, naturally find those spaces and take advantage of them.

Another instance of the minimization of women involves the Mayapur samadhi. At the Vaisnavis in ISKCON Conference, His Holiness Bir Krishna Swami very accurately described the historical photographs which have been reproduced as paintings decorating the samadhi. The female disciples of Srila Prabhupada are not in the paintings although they were in the original photographs. It is obviously disrespectful and devaluing to women that they have been deleted from our institutional history. More importantly, this deletion involves the Mayapur samadhi, a place of enormous significance in our movement. Thus, the message that we as women get is multifaceted and extremely negative. First, we are told, "Don't speak." If you do speak, you run the risk of being one of those women who never covers her head. In other words, you become someone who should not be listened to, someone who is not reliable. We are also told, "Don't act." Don't dance in the temple, don't stand in front of the Deities, don't give class, don't lead kirtan, don't participate in ISKCON. And the murals in the Mayapur samadhi say, "Don't exist. Don't be here." Women leave ISKCON and we're surprised. To paraphrase Srila Prabhupada, rather we should be surprised that women have stayed.

Section Three

Applying the principles of International Law to our society

Having identified some of the main problems in our treatment of women, we must first ask how the law can help us in solving these problems. The law is relevant here because law involves relationships. Law is a way of governing relationships by creating structure and space in which those relationships can take place. When law works well it is because it has minimized conflict. We need that structure here. We have many spaces where it is possible for women's interests and women's needs to be devalued or ignored.

One of the things which we have not yet examined and which is critical for all of our social development policies is the question of what constitutes the proper relationship between ISKCON and its members. At one point, whether or not it was ever articulated, the relationship was viewed as an autocratic tie with ISKCON functionaries giving pronouncements which could not be questioned by individual members. This relationship lead to situations which were destructive to both ISKCON as an institution and to the individual members of ISKCON. Srila Prabhupada himself specifically rejected this type of relationship between institutional leaders and those in their care. A new relationship between ISKCON and its members has yet to be articulated. However, there is currently much discussion of the need for ISKCON to support and nurture its members.

In the law we call this type of relationship a social contract. It is a mutual relationship. There is a lot of evidence in the sastra to support the position that the relationship between institutional leaders and members is based on a social contract. Krishna Himself and Srila Prabhupada have both indicated that the relationship between individual and spiritual leader is a mutual reciprocation. In the verses that Srila Prabhupada liked to quote so frequently from the last chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says,

"Engage always in thinking of Me, become My devotee, offer obeisances to Me, worship Me. In this way you will come to Me. I promise you this because you are so dear to Me."

This verse describes a promise - Krsna tells his devotees, worship Me and I will reciprocate. In the next verse, Krishna says abandon all varieties of religion and I will deliver you. Again, Krishna is describing a reciprocal relationship. There is an important duty on the devotee to be obedient and surrender, but an equally important promise of support and deliverance on the part of the Lord.

This principle of mutuality is highlighted in the pastimes of Lord Ramachandra. At one point, Ravana's brother, Vibhisana, attempts to surrender to Rama. The Vanaras advise Rama to reject Vibhisana saying that he may be an enemy. Lord Rama says, "I cannot reject anyone who surrenders to me. I have no choice." So the Lord is bound, as Srila Prabhupada says, by His devotee's love. That principle can apply to ISKCON as well. If we, the members, surrender and we serve, then we fulfill our duty to participate and to obey. At that point, ISKCON has an obligation to reciprocate and to see that the devotees are cared for. In human rights terminology one would say that there is a mutual relationship of rights and duties. In order to articulate what ISKCON's duties would be we can talk about rights that we would have.

In human rights law, at the international level, there are two kinds of rights. There is an International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which covers rights such as citizenship, voting, and ability to hold office. There is a second International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights which includes rights such as housing, food, and education. For purposes of our discussion in this paper, I will refer to these two categories as participation rights and substantive rights. My theory is that devotees in general and women in particular are entitled to both kinds of rights in ISKCON. I further contend that there is an important link between these two categories of rights.

Section 4

Women are clearly entitled to participation rights in ISKCON at some level. We are allowed to become members of ISKCON. We are allowed to take initiation. We are allowed to chant the holy names. The maha-mantra is not a secret mantra given only to men. So we participate at some level. There has been some controversy about what that level of participation should be. This topic is thoroughly covered in Jyotirmayi's paper "Women in ISKCON in Srila Prabhupada's Times," which is available through the Women's Ministry. In her paper, Jyotirmayi devi dasi makes a compelling case for equal levels of participation for men and women based on Srila Prabhupada's own writing and practices. It is not my intention to revisit this issue in its entirety. However, I would like to revisit one of the purports which Jyotirmayi devi dasi cites and which is instructive in considering women's roles in ISKCON.

In Sri Caitanya Caritamrta, Adi Lila, chapter seven, Srila Prabhupada describes how Lord Caitanya adapted many of the rules of Vaisnava etiquette to increase the effect of His preaching and the spread of Krsna consciousness. In the purport to verse 32, Srila Prabhupada writes,

Not knowing that boys and girls in countries like Europe and America mix very freely, these fools and rascals criticize the boys and girls in Krsna consciousness for intermingling. But these rascals should consider that one cannot suddenly change a community's social customs. However, since both boys and girls are being trained to become preachers, these girls are not ordinary girls, but are as good as their brothers who are preaching Krsna consciousness. Therefore, to engage both boys and girls in fully transcendental activities is a policy intended to spread the Krsna consciousness movement.

There are two points raised by this purport which we ought to carry into further discussions on this issue. First, Srila Prabhupada indicates that the test of whether a woman's participation role is appropriate is not whether it's Vedic. Srila Prabhupada says here that the test of whether a woman's role is appropriate is whether it helps to spread Krsna consciousness. If we truly thought in terms of what is effective for spreading Krishna consciousness, many of the controversies between men and women would disappear.

The second point is the one I previously discussed in section two of this paper, that Srila Prabhupada has just created an analytic exception to the statements that women are less intelligent or untrustworthy, etc. Women engaged in transcendental activities, that is women who are devotees are, according to Srila Prabhupada, just as intelligent as men engaged in devotional activities.

We can now examine the presumptions prevalent in ISKCON against the standard Srila Prabhupada has articulated. My perception, and others may disagree, is that we have a presumption against women's participation in ISKCON. That presumption does not mean that women do not participate in our movement. However, we start from the point of believing that women should not participate and place the burden on women or their supporters to show why women should be included. This presumption needs to be reversed if we are to give women equal encouragement to develop in their spiritual lives and serve Srila Prabhupada's mission to the best of their abilities. We should have a presumption of equal participation for both genders. Then, the burden should be on those who argue that women's roles should be circumscribed, for reasons of etiquette or social custom, to articulate why and how such restriction relates to our goal of spreading Krsna consciousness.

When we examine our treatment of women in a logically rigorous manner, many of our practices appear unreasonable. For instance, we often speak of "protecting" women whenever we are accused of gender discrimination. Disparate practices are held to be necessary and even beneficial to women on the grounds that women need special forms of protection. However, this justification for discriminatory practices is incomplete. Those who would use it must define what it is that women are being protected from. Current ISKCON practice supports best the argument that women are being protected from participating. Moreover, we must also decide what the form of that protection should be.

We can examine these ideas about protection as they relate to Srila Prabhupada's writings on the subject. We must first ask what Srila Prabhupada intended ISKCON to protect women from. The most obvious context in which Srila Prabhupada discussed protection occurs in the first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna tells Krsna that when irreligion is prominent, women are prone to degradation. Arjuna informs Krsna that such women may bear unwanted children to the detriment of society. In his purport to this verse, Srila Prabhupada says that women are prone to being misled by irresponsible men and that the cause of their fall down is mixing too freely with men. If that is the kind of protection we are discussing, I do not understand how the dearth of women on the GBC or discouraging women from accepting management positions in our movement protects us from sexual exploitation. Such an argument requires a belief that the men we would be working with under such circumstances are irresponsible men. The rules ISKCON uses in this context do not appear rationally related to the purposes Srila Prabhupada has described for us.

The next question is what form any protection offered to us should take. We have in ISKCON an unspoken assumption that protection means restriction. We protect women by telling them "you can't" and taken to its extreme form this instruction becomes, "you can't leave the house." Even in slightly less restrictive contexts which permit women to attend worship at ISKCON temples, making flower garlands is seen as the most suitable service for a woman. There is some similarity between the protection model currently applied to women in ISKCON and the techniques I use in raising my children. I give my children crayons and coloring books and protect them by instructing them to sit quietly and color. Women in ISKCON get colorful bundles of carnation blossoms along with tapestry needles and string. We are instructed to sit quietly and make flower garlands. In ISKCON, the current perception seems to be that women are comparable not only to children, but to very small children.

I do not believe that this "woman as small child" model is the one Srila Prabhupada intended. In fact, examination of the histories told by many of his early female disciples reveals that Srila Prabhupada himself did not treat women in this way. Their stories reveal that Srila Prabhupada protected them in three ways. First, he educated his female disciples about their true identities as spirit souls. Second, Srila Prabhupada engaged women in devotional service. Finally, as Kausalya devi dasi detailed in her presentation at the Vaisnavis in ISKCON Conference, when limited facilities were available for the devotees' use, Srila Prabhupada protected his female disciples by giving them the lion's share of those physical resources.

In examining Srila Prabhupada's actual behavior toward his female disciples, it seems fair to conclude that far from comparing women to children who could not function on their own, Srila Prabhupada desired a model in which women would be nurtured and supported and above all encouraged to contribute as much as they could to the Krsna Consciousness Movement, rather than being reviled and restricted. Perhaps we should redirect our efforts towards a model designed to ensure that women are educated, engaged and provided with sufficient resources in order to perform their various services effectively within our organization.

This question of protection through providing resources raises the second category of human rights, that is, substantive rights. If protection is really our goal, then as an outside, academic observer I would expect to see policies directed to that goal. The Women's Ministry and other members of ISKCON have engaged in significant discussion concerning policies which would be necessary to protect women members of ISKCON. That list is legion, but if we examine protection from sexual exploitation specifically, I would expect to see, among many other things, education about our proper roles as men and women, ashram facilities for women, and a policy prohibiting sexual harassment. In fact, we have some of these things. We have training manuals for our new members, but they do not often include material on how to respect and protect women. We have ashram facilities. However, we spend more resources on men's training and men's ashrams than we do on comparable programs for women. The Women's Ministry is drafting a policy on sexual harassment, but without effective support from ISKCON's management, that policy is unlikely to result in meaningful social change. Thus, in spite of our rhetoric about protecting women, an outside observer will find that we give more substantive rights to men than to women.

In ISKCON we find ourselves in the position of telling our women members that they do not need participation rights because we will protect them. But we then fail to provide the resources by which that protection might come about. Human rights analysts will tell you that when you decrease somebody's participation rights without a corresponding increase in their substantive rights, that person will be worse off than when you started. That situation is the very definition of oppression and dictatorship, which is surely not what Srila Prabhupada intended.

There is another aspect of the protection issue which raises a slightly different philosophical basis for a duty on ISKCON's part. That issue is domestic violence. In his presentation at the Vaisnavis in ISKCON Conference, His Holiness Bir Krishna Swami mentioned a letter he had seen in which a male member of ISKCON expressed his understanding that our Vaisnava etiquette permitted him to beat his wife as long as he used only a leather belt on her back or a sapling on her legs. Some male members in Southern California have expressed the belief that Srila Prabhupada stated that both a wife and a mrdanga required beating.

Given this institutional force which misguided members are using to promote domestic violence, ISKCON has a duty to create policies which will counter domestic violence. While the ISKCON Women's Ministry has undertaken to create some policies and substantive programs to meet this need, we often hear a number of excuses for institutional inaction on this issue. The excuses we hear, lack of resources and an inability to interfere between husband and wife, are clearly insufficient. Given our somewhat chequered history which includes (at the very least) the public perception that we have a poor record on domestic violence, we have a duty to find the resources to counter this destructive influence. Moreover, having given numerous, repeated public instructions on the duty of the wife to tolerate any of her husband's abuses and having given men some (false, but well promoted) basis on which to justify their abuses, it seems a little late to make the claim that we cannot become involved in the marital relationship. If we make the claim that we protect women, then we must become responsible and actually protect them.

I want to return now to the issue of participation rights because there is a clear link between participation rights and substantive rights. The best way to ensure that people have substantive rights is to give them participation rights. So the claim that we can safely relinquish our participation rights in exchange for protection is simply untrue. Even with the best of intentions, our leaders will be unable to safeguard our substantive rights if we have too few participation rights. I am deeply suspicious of anyone who tells us that we do not need participation rights. Experience shows that we do need such rights.

There are two reasons why ISKCON needs to pay particular attention to this link between participation rights and substantive rights. The first is that we have a limited ability to enforce any substantive rights we create. We have no functioning justice system in our movement. Although we have a Justice Minister and have developed some grievance policies, our Justice Ministry has no staff and no financial resources. Hence, our grievance policies are routinely ignored. It would be unreasonable to assume that substantive policies protecting women can be enforced effectively in this environment.

Furthermore, there are important transaction costs which function as barriers preventing our leaders from developing and enforcing policies which would truly meet the needs of ISKCON's women in an environment which excludes women from upper management. Basic economic theory informs us that the development of any policy to protect women will bring with it transaction costs including the costs of gathering the information necessary to develop that policy. Those transaction costs will include both monetary costs and opportunity costs. If our leaders wish to develop substantive policies to protect ISKCON's women, rather than allowing the women to participate in management and work out for themselves what they need, then our leaders must be willing to invest both time and money.

These costs will operate as a significant barrier to the development of substantive rights for women in ISKCON. ISKCON leaders already plead lack of financial resources to explain lack of substantive social development policies in our movement. Furthermore, our leaders are consistently over engaged, that is, they have less time available than they need to accomplish the tasks already assigned to them. So there is little realistic likelihood of them as a group, or even more than one or two individuals, making it their business to find out what the women of ISKCON really need and to develop the structures to meet those needs. Again, we return to the idea that women need participation rights if they are going to have a meaningful role in ISKCON and if ISKCON can truly claim to protect them.

There is another kind of transaction cost which is raised by the exclusion of women from positions of authority in ISKCON. That cost is the difficulty for women of identifying other women who are spiritual role models. There are many visible male role models, advanced spiritual leaders, whom we can easily identify because they have visible symbols of advancement. They have dandas, they have titles such as GBC representative or temple president. At the very least, they sit on the vyasasana during the morning program and give Bhagavatam class. The women in our movement, many of whom have been practicing Krsna consciousness longer than some of the male role models, are very hard to find. They lack the visible symbols of advancement. Thus, it has taken me more than ten years just to begin to identify the women who can act as my spiritual mentors. Giving women participation rights which permit them to give Bhagavatam class, to run projects and temples, to sit on the GBC, allows the women of ISKCON to find the role models we need to advance in Krsna consciousness.


There are three points which are essential to any policy which would permit ISKCON to ensure appropriate roles for women. First, as I mentioned before, there should be a presumption against limiting women's access to spiritual resources. Where women's access is limited, policy makers must provide a written justification for their decision, articulating how their policy is necessary to increase the spread of Krsna consciousness.

Second, we need women in leadership roles from the highest levels down to the local temple communities. We need women in leadership roles in significant numbers to prevent these leaders from being isolated or marginalized by male administrators. One aspect of this issue of female leadership which we have not yet addressed is the extent to which men get a significant amount of informal support in rising up through the ranks in ISKCON. This phenomenon is not necessarily a sign of malice on the part of our leaders. Rather, men develop intimate relationships with men in our society, as they should. However, anyone in an intimate relationship with a leader has access to a great deal of support and resources. Women do not have that opportunity and will not have that opportunity until we have significant numbers of women at high levels. Thus, ISKCON has a duty to foster the development of women leaders. It is not sufficient for ISKCON's management to say, find some qualified women and bring them to us. ISKCON has the duty to find women who can lead and also to find women who have the potential to be leaders and to give these women the same opportunity to develop that is given to similarly qualified men.

When we have done these two things we can progress to the final prong, developing substantive policies, more effectively. We must identify the needs of the women so that we can do two further things. We must empower the women to meet some of their own needs and we must develop structures which will provide women with the resources and facilities they need.

The focus of the Women's Ministry has been, in large part, on providing women with a forum for working together to meet their own needs. The recent Vaisnavis in ISKCON Conference embodied that philosophy, involving women from across North America who worked together under the direction of Sudharma devi dasi to organize what His Holiness Hridayananda Swami described as an historic event which could vastly improve our movement.

Finally, we must all work together as a movement to develop the structures and policies which will provide women with the substantive rights they need for their protection and in order to meet our goals of advancing Krsna consciousness. However, we will work most effectively together if we increase participation roles for women in ISKCON.

CHAKRA 14-Oct-98