The role of women in ISKCON

Dear Devotees,

After speaking so much about Indian externals as an impediment to Western preaching, I would like to propose another cause of ISKCON’s troubles in the West, a cause that is at least as important, if not more so: the treatment of women. I will argue that the suppression of women in ISKCON has been a major cause of the collapse, and continued flat-lining, of the Western mission.


Prabhupada once wrote to me, “The secret of keeping devotees enthused is to always give them a fresh challenge.” Briefly, for most of its existence, ISKCON has systematically denied many women this essential opportunity. As an ISKCON member, but also an ISKCON watcher, for over 50 years, I have seen hundreds of intelligent, dynamic, devoted women join the movement and then leave ISKCON, or move to its outer orbits outside the core mission, because ISKCON did not offer them what Krishna Himself offers them in the Gita — the essential opportunity to fully engage their nature and abilities for Him.


Kṛṣṇa explicitly states twice in the Gītā that one must perform one’s own duty.

3.35 It is better to imperfectly perform one’s own dharma, rather than expertly perform another’s duty. Indeed, perishing in one’s duty is better because performing another’s duty is (even more) dangerous. Imagine, that performing a duty not born of one’s nature is more dangerous than death itself!


18.47 Here Kṛṣṇa first repeats the same advice as 3.35, “It is better to imperfectly perform one’s own dharma, rather than expertly perform another’s duty.” But then he adds a key clarification: “Performing work required [niyata] by one’s nature, one does not incur sin.”


Thus one’s duty is determined by one’s individual nature, not necessarily by one’s gender. It is dangerous to demand that a Vaiṣnavī deny her propensity for construtive service, since Kṛṣṇa states at 3.33 that, “Even a wise person acts according to their  nature. Living beings follow their nature. What will repression do?” Note that the word for ‘wise person’ here ’ is jñānavān, the same word used at 7.19 to describe a soul surrendered to Kṛṣṇa.


The causal link between nature and duty is strong emphasized again in Ch 18, where Kṛṣṇa defines the four varṇas:


18.41 The duties of the four varṇas are determined by each one’s qualities born of their own nature. (sva-bhāva-ja)

18.42 The duties of brāhmaṇas are born of their own nature.

18.43 The duties of kṣatriyas are born of their own nature.

18.44 The duties of vaiśyas and śūdras are born of their own nature.

18.45 A person achieves perfection by dedication to one’s own duty (born of their nature).


Thus to deny a Vaiṣṇavī full opportunity to serve according to her own nature and ability is to commit violence against her. How cruelly ironic that in the name of “protecting” women, many women were systematically injured.


Now that ISKCON has, more or less, authorized women to serve as gurus, with a few somewhat humiliating conditions, the simple fact is that there are very few women stepping forward to do that service. God only knows how many brilliant, devoted souls distanced themselves from ISKCON, or simply lost their enthusiasm, because of systematic repression.


To complete the logical circle here, I repeat that Prabhupada wrote me that the secret to keeping devotees enthused is to always give them a fresh challenge. It follows that without the chance for that challenge, according to one’s nature, it is very hard to maintain one’s enthusiasm. And without enthusiasm in spiritual life, one loses one’s taste.


Prabhupada insisted that he made adjustments in the West because if the women don’t come, the men won’t come. The obvious corollary: when the women leave, the men leave, even if the women and their men are simply leaving the arena of active preaching.


Final point: I am inspired and enthused by seeing all the extraordinary Vaiṣṇavīs that are coming forward joyfully to serve Kṛṣṇa West and of course other ISKCON projects. I believe this is because KW and other projects offer women all opportunity to lead, when to lead is their real nature. Unless we fully encourage sincere, talented Vaiṣṇavīs to serve according to their abilities, not according to our bodily prejudice, ISKCON has very little chance of growing in the West.


With best wishes,

Hridayananda dasa Goswami

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