Where Are the Women's Ashramas?
Posted December 5, 2010
Sometimes there is talk on how the women devotees in ISKCON should be treated, and even the possibility of promoting them into leadership positions in the movement. But that would seem to be a rarity when ISKCON hardly provides any facility for women anyway.
Why? Look around and tell me how many temples even offer a place for women. There are so many temples across America, and especially in India, that offer no place for women, no ashramas, little if any facilities, and in some places, little if any service. And women are supposed to be comfortable in joining such an organization? Maybe they can participate from a distance, like from their homes if they are married, but we hardly ever find any brahmacarinis like there used to be in the past.
Let's face a few facts:
1. In the preaching work that I do, I receive a lot of emails from people from around the world, and this includes a number of emails over the years from Indian men who are interested in joining ISKCON, but have an obstacle to deal with for which they want advice. And that is the disapproval of their wives. Their wives often do not like their husbands becoming too absorbed in ISKCON.
But what should we expect? Any woman who looks over the long-term possibilities of their own involvement in ISKCON would naturally be worried. Why? Because, as long as they are cared for by a husband, their situation may have some security. If they remain householders and participate in ISKCON from their home, it may be all right.
But if their husbands want to join ISKCON or be a part of it on a more full time basis, then what happens to the wife? Where will she go? Is there an ashrama for her to join? Is there a woman's branch of ISKCON to join? Does she go back to her parents, keep working somewhere to support herself, or will her children take care of her? This last scenario is happening less often amongst Indian families. Naturally, many women become apprehensive without a clear picture of what to expect.
If we had more facility for women, whether it be ashramas, women's groups, meetings, etc., then it would reduce that concern of new women devotees or of the wives of men who want to increase their participation in ISKCON. But this kind of thing seems to be a low priority amongst most ISKCON leaders.
2. Even now we can see that for those women who have dedicated years of their life to ISKCON, they have no dependable shelter within ISKCON, no place to retire without the insecurity and worries of what will happen next, or how to pay for the facilities she may need. They may be in an ashrama, even doing much needed Deity worship, but not know if some new temple president with a new attitude will come in and change the standard for who can stay and who must leave. Then they may find that they are forced out, but to where?
Thus, they have few places, if any, to live their final years in Krishna-conscious association. For a movement like ISKCON to maintain such conditions, or lack thereof, it is shameful and thoughtless, especially when we bring up Vedic references that speak of how women are supposed to be honored and protected.
That is why, to me, the whole subject of putting more devotee women in positions of leadership seems strange when, first of all, we hardly consider the need to have a place for women devotees anywhere in ISKCON. When Srila Prabhupada was here, practically every temple had an ashrama for women, and some in the Americas still do. But now we see temples where it is as if women don't count for much. Yes, most women do get married and serve their family without joining an ashrama. Nonetheless, there is little facility for those who would like to join ISKCON. No wonder some people think the way they do about ISKCON, that it's nothing more than a patriarchal environment. And who do we have to blame for that?
Naturally, there are plans to correct this, but only amongst a few, and until those plans are fully developed, where are the women supposed to go? The fact remains that there are indeed ashramas for women, even in Vrindavana or at Govardhan, but those often outside of ISKCON. Does that mean that serious women devotees who are looking for an ashrama may be forced to leave ISKCON and go to some other camp? Thankfully, here in Detroit, where I serve, we still have a fully dedicated women's ashrama, which will remain as long as I am still the chairman of the board at this temple.
3. As it stands, unless a woman has a wealthy husband, or someone who left her money, or has some financial stability of her own and can afford her own apartment, like at the Mayapur-Vrindavan Trust in Vrindavana, or someplace near a temple, it is often seen that there is little facility for her to stay near or in a temple ashrama and freely participate in ISKCON full time. Yet, we can see almost every temple has a men's ashrama.
Of course, more men join full time than women. Nonetheless, I recently got a question through an email from a woman in India for which I did not have a proper answer, and that is which temples have ashramas for women. I did not know quite what to say. It turns out that the woman who emailed me was from Kolkata, around 43 years old, and simply wanted to find an ashrama where she could settle and do service to Lord Krishna full time for the rest of her life. But where can she go to do that? People often email me asking for advice, but I did not have a sure answer for this question.
If we do have temples with ashramas for women, then let's create a database, a list of such places so we can let people know where sincere women can go to be a part of ISKCON and serve full time with other women association.
4. In my preaching endeavors, I work both within ISKCON and with other Hindu groups outside of ISKCON and have come in contact with a wide variety of scenarios. For example, while giving lecture tours in India, I have seen where some Christian organizations that are converting Indian Hindus into Christians focus primarily on the mothers and wives in the villages. Why? Because they know that if a mother of a family becomes interested in Christianity and is invited to the church and becomes enthusiastic, then a few things begin to happen, which are:
A. She will start bringing her children to church and educating them in Christianity,
B. She will talk to her women friends and tell them about it and bring them to the church, which then increases as they all begin to tell others about it,
C. There are often Christian women's groups that are created, in which they participate, which gives them encouragement to bring more to the group and to church, and
D. She also usually has some influence over her husband who then also begins going to church. Iif his wife, his children, the wives of his friends and then his own friends start going, why wouldn't he also begin to go?
Thus, whole sections of villages and various areas of India are being converted to Christianity simply because they cater to the women. It seems if ISKCON is really a preaching movement, they would also catch on to this strategy. But as I talk to people about this in ISKCON, it seems that most are not aware of this point, or do not care.
5. If ISKCON is serious about establishing varnashrama or self-sufficient communities, they will never succeed unless they know how to incorporate women to do their part in it. Varnashrama cannot be done by men alone. It requires whole families, which means we need the women to do their part, or varnashrama is merely an endeavor in discussion only, and maybe a few small projects here and there, most of which come and go.
6. Naturally, not every temple may be able to have a women's ashrama. But even a large organization like the RSS in India has a women's branch called the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, which is established in many cities across India and in which women can participate. These may not have ashramas, but they have their own headquarters in Nagpur, with an ashrama where both older women and younger girls can stay full time.
I know because I visited and had lunch there some years ago with the women leaders of the organization. In fact, they contacted me during their anniversary celebration to write an article on "Women in Vedic Culture" in which I elaborated on how women were viewed in the Vedic texts, how they were supposed to honored, with examples of great Vedic women. They very much appreciated the article and published it in their anniversary souvenir magazine. [Anyone can read that article on my website at www.stephen-knapp.com.]
7. Advantages for a women's ashrama include bringing more women to the movement where they can be properly trained and engaged in devotional service. How can we neglect half of the world's population for spiritual development? Naturally, most women, especially in India, will get married and serve a husband and family. But what about the brahmacaris who want to get married? Where do we expect them to find educated devotee ladies, and trained in devotional service if there is no women's ashrama?
Do the men just go back out to the villages to find someone who may not have been trained up? Or do they still rely on their parents to make the arrangements, which may not be in the devotee's best interest? Would it not be best to have men get married to women who are already trained in devotional standards, sadhana, Vaishnava etiquette, cooking, or even Deity worship? And then bring children up in a strong devotionally-based atmosphere?
8. Disadvantages for not having a facility for women include the fact that ISKCON looks extremely patriarchal with little concern for its women members, or in making women members, or in providing facility for them. That is already one of the factors that keep women from wanting to join, and also put men off who notice this. How can we expect women to want to join ISKCON at any age only to know that there is little facility for them — or those who have already been longtime members and find that after dedicating their lives to the movement there is no longer any place for them in their old age where they can freely serve and strictly engage in devotional service?
In the present state, for the most part, it becomes clear that there is little opportunity for a thriving or dynamic future for women in ISKCON, unless they are financially independent from the movement to do as they like, which is not the Vedic system. But if we cannot provide for them, what else are they to do?
[Some older men also face the same dilemma in ISKCON. I still haven't figured out what I'm going to do when I am old with no money and able to do little service. But that's a separate discussion.]
How can we expect any woman, even if they are married, who thinks long-term to want to join the movement if they know that no matter how dedicated her and her husband have been to serving in the movement, if her husband joins ISKCON full time, or takes sannyasa, or if he unexpectedly dies young, she suddenly has no place in ISKCON? This happened to someone in Mumbai when, before they had children, her husband died and she had no place to go. She was allowed to stay in the guest house for several days, but after that, she had to leave, but where to go?
In conclusion, it would seem that a solution to some of these problems and issues would be that certain temples should have facility for women, or there should be at least a centrally located ashrama that can accommodate a majority of sincere and dedicated women devotees who are looking for a place where they can simply do service. Or if they have already given most of their lives to the movement, then there should be a place where they can retire in devotional life.
If the GBC of ISKCON is in charge of establishing solutions and facilities for the growth of the movement, and if we really accept and believe the Vedic tenets of honoring qualified women, this should be an issue that should be dealt with soon and in an effective manner.
If they don't, then is there any reason why we should expect more than a few women to want to join ISKCON full time, knowing there is little future or facility for them in the movement? Should there be any wonder why husbands who become interested in ISKCON may be met with resistance from their wives? Is there any wonder why women may join other movements who offer more respect and better facilities for them? This could change with properly managed facilities for women.
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