Over at the Sampradaya Sun, editor Rochana Prabhu has given his thoughts on female diksa-gurus (FDGs). Briefly, his take is that the tradition mandates for the most part a laissez-faire approach to the question of who can be a guru. He is, of course, right that this has been the tradition. Yet the fact of being part of an institution like ISKCON makes it reasonable for its leaders to insist on additional criteria.
For example, if someone in ISKCON is a sannyasi, he may be a bona fide sannyasi, but he is also an “ISKCON sannyasi” simply by the fact that people in general will also associate him with ISKCON. So the leadership is right to impose other obligations or standards on him in order to protect the ISKCON brand name and Srila Prabhupada’s legacy. A non-hypothetical example of this is the age requirements for sannyasa imposed by the society. There is no age requirement for sannyasa in shastra or in tradition, but the leaders of our society have imposed one in response to what has been a problem with lack of steadiness with past, younger sannyasis. So if you want to be a young sannyasi, then you are welcome to, but unless an exception is made for you by the leaders, you will have to go outside of ISKCON for it. That doesn’t mean you aren’t a bona fide sannyasi if you do, but you can no longer be counted as an ISKCON sannyasi. The important point here is that the additional rules imposed by the GBC are germane to one’s status as a representative of the society.
In the same way, if someone is a guru in ISKCON, then the fact that one is representing ISKCON and hence ISKCON’s Founder-Acharya Srila Prabhupada, then it may be reasonable for ISKCON’s leaders to insist on other criteria in addition to that mandated by shastra or our sampradaya. That is because you are not just any guru, but you are an ISKCON guru. It is not that gurus outside of ISKCON are not bona fide, but to be counted as a guru who also represents ISKCON one has to play by additional rules imposed by ISKCON’s leaders.
The GBC has a rational interest in connection with their duties to say who or who should not be a guru within ISKCON. And that is reasonable, as ISKCON’s GBC have indeed been charged with protecting the image and legacy of the movement Srila Prabhupada started. Those who disagree with their criteria can still be bona fide gurus. It’s just that if they want to act in the capacity of a bona fide diksa-guru but do not have the blessings of the GBC, they will have to go outside of ISKCON to act in that capacity.
The right of the GBC to impose rules and prohibitions in addition to what shastra and our acharyas have given is a separate question from whether the GBC itself remains faithful to the desires of ISKCON’s Founder-Acharya. Rochana Prabhu raises this point:
The western oriented GBC, many of whom are sannyasis, are actively directing ISKCON towards the model of a western-style religion. On the other hand, we have the eastern style religionists advocating that ISKCON follow an eastern style religious model, with guru and ashrams. The leaders in these two camps have differing perspective on the FDG issue, which emphasizes the great divide.
A taxonomy that is better than “Western” vs. “Eastern” is called for here, because Rochana Prabhu’s characterization of them doesn’t do justice to either. Really, are Western ISKCON liberals primarily interested in schmalzing with their counterparts at politically left-of-center interfaith conferences and ISKCON “eastern style religionists” primarily interested in mathas and ashrams? There is much more to it on both sides (if that’s how the sides can be distinguished), and Rochana Prabhu’s position is not necessarily distinct from either side.
Nonetheless, Prabhu Rochana’s description of what he thinks are the motivations of the “western oriented GBC” is still useful as a starting point for getting a better understanding of the matter.
The western liberals look forward to communing with their ecumenical associates, pointing out just how inclusive modern ISKCON is by recognizing and including women diksa gurus, and homosexuals. They have experienced the criticism from other religious western scholars, who point to the exclusion of women as an indication that Krsna consciousness/ISKCON is a primitive, backward culture. So for the benefit of a few ISKCON leaders who feel it an important preaching program, communing with a few ecumenical fellows from other western religions, as a result the whole society is forced to go along with the debate on FDG.
This is accurate because at a high level many ISKCON members have indeed pursued their own academic careers or have made extensive efforts to befriend Western academics and social leaders. Consequently, the price they have had to pay for membership in, say, academia or to be counted among the friends in this community has required them to change their own values. (I shall say more about this in subsequent posts.)
Insofar as Western ISKCON liberals (if we may use that term briefly here) identify with the values and norms of liberal Western thought, a salient feature of Western thought is its lack of a transcendent conception of the self. Hence, equality in the context of Western thought is conceived of in terms of material standards. That is why Western liberals (following the ideas of Rousseau and Marx) are obsessed with minimizing the differences between different classes in society. They believe that exploitation arises from class difference, hence they try to minimize differences between different classes of people, down to the individual.
Another important consequence for those who hold this line of thought is their belief motivates them to try to erase as far as possible the differences between male and female at all levels of society. Notice that this is similar to the Eastern impersonlist view, which Srila Prabhupada criticizes in his purport to SB 1.1.1 (bolding added):
Śrīla Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura specifically deals with the original and pure sex psychology (ādi-rasa), devoid of all mundane inebriety. The whole material creation is moving under the principle of sex life. In modern civilization, sex life is the focal point for all activities. Wherever one turns his face, he sees sex life predominant. Therefore, sex life is not unreal. Its reality is experienced in the spiritual world. The material sex life is but a perverted reflection of the original fact. The original fact is in the Absolute Truth, and thus the Absolute Truth cannot be impersonal. It is not possible to be impersonal and contain pure sex life. Consequently, the impersonalist philosophers have given indirect impetus to the abominable mundane sex life because they have overstressed the impersonality of the ultimate truth. Consequently, man without information of the actual spiritual form of sex has accepted perverted material sex life as the all in all. There is a distinction between sex life in the diseased material condition and spiritual sex life.
Impersonalists have to embrace mundane sex life because their information about the absolute truth is limited to its impersonal feature. The same is true of Western religionists. Their scripture simply does not describe (or describes very badly) the transcendental characteristics of the Lord. Hence their religious efforts are necessarily focused on worldly piety–soup kitchens, hospitals, eye-camps, etc. In other words, both the Eastern impersonalists and Western religionists converge on the worth of mundane philanthropy, and for them its worth as religious activity is superlative. They cannot aspire to something higher because they lack the transcendental qualification to do so. As a consequence, material sex life must necessarily flourish wherever they dominate society. And that’s why the West has elevated sexual gratification as a public virtue to a level not seen since the Romans.
This observation motivates the following theorem: A person or group emphasizes mundane equality as a virtue if and only if they are impersonalists. The use of the term “if and only if” means that the assertion is bi-directional. That is, if you are an impersonalist, then your philanthropic activity will be characterized by fruitive work — soup kitchens, eye-camps, charitable hospitals, etc. In the other direction, an impersonalist stance will also be indicated by one’s social and political values. If you believe men and women should have equal opportunity in the workplace, then you are an impersonalist. And if you are an impersonalist, then you will very likely favor various mundane social equality measures, including equality in the workplace, equality in political, social and economic opportunity between the sexes.
(Of course, some impersoanlists in India like the Mayavadis have been staunchly orthodox in their separation of the sexes (only women allowed to take sannyasa), but this is largely because of the strong influence of Vaisnavism in Indian culture at large. In other words, the Vaisnavas have kept the orthodox followers of Sankara from devolving into Marxist-style equality of the sexes by serving as a counterbalance to their overemphasis of the impersonal feature of the Absolute Truth. Other impersonalists in India, however, like the Brahma-kumaris, did devolve into Marxist-style equality of the sexes. So did the Chaitanyaite Sahajiya Vaishnavas, who are infamous for their sexual impropriety. Orthodox Vaisnavism has traditionally been inimical to these movements, and for good reason.)
So, what does this say about our own divisions on the FDG matter in ISKCON? For the sake of providing a more useful taxonomy than what Rochana Prabhu has provided, it means that the differing opinions on the matter of female diksa-gurus are better and more clearly understood in terms of to what extent their conception of the Absolute Truth is mixed with impersonalism. The virtue of this differentiation is that it gives us a continuum on which to evaluate the different opinions.
For example, some who favor the traditional norm of limiting female diksha-gurus are not necessarily against there being any. Typically, people in this group argue that for those still situated in the stages of vaidhi bhakti (which, arguable, is the level that most all of ISKCON gurus are at), they are obligated to follow varnashram principles in order to protect themselves and others from mundane sex attraction. This is much harder for women to do than men, which is why the dharma-shastras give different direction for men and women on the matter of their legitimate occupations. This means that if exceptional women come along (and there is no reason to believe that this is a virtual impossibility, given that some appear in our line), then there should be no objection to letting them act as guru.
In this regard, Srila Prabhupada’s instruction to Smt. Yamuna devi dasi and Smt. Dinatarine dasi is relevant:
21 February, 1976
My dear Yamuna and Dinatarine,
Please accept my blessings. I beg to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated February 4, 1976.
Enclosed please find a true copy of my reply to your letter dated December 24th, 1976.
The thing is cow protection is not possible for women. You can keep two or three cows, but on larger scale it is not possible. You should not try to take care of more. It is not women’s business. Women’s business is getting milk and making milk preparations. On the whole larger scale is not to be attempted by women. Manage a small asram, but don’t try bigger scale, then you require the help of men.
Don’t try manual exertion, then again there is mixture and that is not desired. Simply keep yourself aloof from men—chanting, many more times as possible, read books, worship the deity. I am very much pleased with this girl Svati—she has adopted this white dress. She must not be attractive at all. A widow is forbidden to use ornaments, nice sari, decoration, combing the hair nicely. These are forbidden for the woman who is not with husband.
I hope this meets you well.
Your ever well-wisher,
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami
Here we have Srila Prabhupada saying “cow protection is not possible for women”, and the rationale for his instruction is clear: in order to minimize male-female association, such division of labor is necessary. That rational is wide and deep in its application, and it explains why in ISKCON’s spiritual lineage female diksa-gurus have been rare.
But Western secular liberals, Western religious liberals, and Western-leaning liberal members of ISKCON will tell you something different. For example, Western-leaning liberal members of ISKCON think its a check on women’s devotional service if they are not allowed to be temple presidents or GBC members. ISKCON members or not, the Western-leaning liberals believe in equal-opportunity employment because they have an impersonal conception of the Absolute Truth and hence define spiritual equality in terms of equal access to worldly social, economic, and political resources.
Because they overemphasize the oneness of the Absolute Truth, they dismiss such divisions in society by ignoring them, disparaging them and the sources of scriptural authority for them, or dismissing them entirely. That is, to some significant extent they are impersonalists, and their impersonalism can be understood from their visible inclination to ignore or disparage such conventions. Consequently, they all also have a devil of a time adhering to scriptural standards of illicit sex. Therefore their tendency is to try to dumb down the requirements for it, which motivates them to take shelter of the word-jugglery that is the halmark of the Mayavadis. The Western equivalent of this is called “revisionism,” whereby Western liberal religionists reinterpret their own scripture by means of linguistic theories that deny authorial intent (structuralim, poststructuralism, etc). That’s who impersonalists are, that’s what they do.
This is not to say that our own Western-liberal-leaning ISKCON members are complete impersonalists. But just as knowing “you are not the body” is not sufficient to restrain one from sense gratification, knowing that Krishna (God) is a person is not sufficient to deter one from activities motivated by impersonalism. That is, there is a difference between theoretical knowledge and realization. Those who are nominally Krishna conscious are still attracted to the material energy because they still are attached in varying degrees to impersonalism. It is therefore no accident that Srila Prabhupada defined his mission as nirvishesha shunyavadi paschatya desha tarine, his mission being to deliver the Western countries, which are filled with impersonalism and voidism.
So, to further constructive discussion on the female diksa-guru issue, I propose that the different groups be understood with respect to their personalist or impersonalist inclinations. As a proxy for measuring the degree of their impersonalism, it is proposed that their relative fidelity to varnasrama principles be a measure of their personalism or impersonalism, for this is the hottest area of contention between the two groups.
And the two groups should not be divided into people who are for- or against- female diksa gurus, for nearly everyone in both groups agrees that women can be diksha-guru. What they disagree on is the extent to which varnasrama applies to women who are being considered as candidates for diksha-guru. The two groups can be divided on the basis of whether varnasrama should be retained as a criteria for allowing or disallowing women to act as a diksha guru. That’s the dividing line.