Chakra Discussions

Women Gurus in ISKCON

by Hare Krsna dasi

Posted October 18, 2003

A recent VNN article announcing the prospective approval of Her Grace Urmila dasi as a diksa guru in ISKCON has stirred up criticism, including an article entitled Female Diksa Guruship.

The article centers around one quote from Srila Prabhupada:

"According to sastric injunctions, there is no difference between siksa-guru and diksa-guru, and generally the siksa-guru later on becomes the diksa-guru. Suniti, however, being a woman, and specifically his mother, could not become Dhruva Maharaja's diksa-guru." (Bhag. 4.12.32 Purport)

The article does acknowledge that when questioned about whether women could initiate, Srila Prabhupada said of course they could and cited the example of Jahnava devi, the consort of Lord Nityananda, who initiated disciples in the 16th century. Yet, it states that Jahnava devi should be considered an exception and notes that, although she preached to mixed audiences, she gave classes from behind a curtain.

Immediately, we have from His Divine Grace two somewhat different perspectives on whether women can initiate disciples. In addition to that, we have Srila Prabhupada's instructions in a letter to Hamsadutta:

"I want that all of my spiritual sons and daughters will inherit this title of Bhaktivedanta, so that the family transcendental diploma will continue through the generations. Those possessing the title of Bhaktivedanta will be allowed to initiate disciples. Maybe by 1975, all of my disciples will be allowed to initiate and increase the numbers of the generations. That is my program." (3 Dec. 1968)

So Srila Prabhupada's instructions are by no means cut and dried on this subject, because he actually made statements to different effects at different times. Therefore, we need to decide which of his instructions best fulfills his desires for spreading Krsna consciousness to the most people possible.

Although we preach that spiritual advancement cannot be limited by bodily distinctions, some people think that we do, in fact, make bodily distinctions and that we regard women as less advanced spiritually. Without a doubt, official approval that women devotees can be approached for diksa in ISKCON will reduce such fears; indeed, it will be an effective means of helping spread Krsna consciousness around the world.

Secondly, it will open prospective disciples to the idea that it is not necessary to take initiation from a dazzling sannyasi with hundreds of followers. They will recognize that not only are there many women devotees qualified to initiate disciples, but there are many spiritually advanced grhastha men and senior brahmacaris highly qualified to help a disciple go back to Godhead.

Third, the idea that some parts of the world will not respect a woman guru is rapidly changing. In India, Mata Amritanandamayi, the "hugging guru" -- also known as Amma, or Mother -- is reputed to have 20 million followers.

In the Moghul India of the 1500s, preaching from behind a curtain was an intelligent strategy for spreading Krsna consciousness without disturbing the local Muslim authorities. That certainly was not the India described in the Bhagavatam in which Kunti devi walked in front of the group at Pandu's funeral. Kunti devi's actions would not have been tolerated in Moghul India. But India has again changed, and so has the rest of the world. It is ready openly to accept a woman guru.

If ISKCON cannot bring this aspect of Krsna consciousness into modern times, along the lines of Srila Prabhupada's stated plans, it will quickly lose its "market share" of devotional followers. For that reason, also, ISKCON leaders who have had the foresight to endorse Urmila's candidacy should be commended.

This brings us to the subject of who should be ISKCON's first woman guru. Urmila Prabhu would be an ideal candidate. She is knowledgeable, intelligent, honest, humble and wise. Even devotees who differ widely with her views on specific issues profess an admiration of her example as a solid, hard-working and dedicated devotee. It would be inspiring if ISKCON could hold up this careful follower of Srila Prabhupada as a bona fide spiritual alternative to a woman guru whose attraction seems to be largely sentiment.

I worked with Urmila prabhu for ten years on the Back to Godhead editorial board. I was often surprised that she would stick up for an article that was poorly written, because she could appreciate the underlying Krsna consciousness of the devotee who sent it in, and she wanted to fan that person's devotion and, at the same time, share the person's unique inspiration with the BTG audience. And what practical process did she apply to get that result? It was nothing mystical, or misty, as Prabhupada might say. Mostly, it was just solid, disciplined editing and working with the author.

Another quality I noticed in working with her is that she carefully takes the time to think things out. She does not make impassioned statements off the top of her head. As our society grows, this quality will be needed more and more from our gurus. It is not enough just to cite one Prabhupada quote and say, "End of discussion; no questions." Urmila will have the wisdom to balance apparently contradictory instructions and demonstrate to her disciples how to make a judgment about which instruction is appropriate in a given situation.

I am convinced that this instinctive appreciation of the Krsna conscious potential of others, combined with her ability to provide sensitive discipline and focus, would help her followers advance in Krsna consciousness. A guru cannot fail to be inspired and delighted to see his or her followers advance and, based on a lifetime of work and preaching, this is a position that Urmila has earned. Many of us would be grateful to her disciples for making an exemplary devotee like this an ISKCON guru. And best of all, it will open the door for a much broader range of qualified devotees to take up the work of being guru and increasing the generations of devotees.