At this year’s meetings of the Governing Body Commission—ISKCON’s ultimate managing authority—in Mayapur, India, German Srila Prabhupada disciple Dina Sharana Dasi became only the second-ever woman to accept the position of full-voting GBC member.
Her path there starts a decade ago: One day, while washing pots in her kitchen, she had what she calls eingebung
in German—a kind of inspirational vision in her mind—where Srila Prabhupada told her something that would change her life.
Dina Sharana is careful to clarify that the inspiration was in her mind only, not some mystical vision—she’s a very practical, down-to-earth woman with not a touch of the New Age about her and no illusions of premature spiritual advancement. But she is certain that the words she heard Srila Prabhupada say in her mind were to be taken seriously. In the Vaishnava tradition, words spoken by the guru in a night-time dream are to be taken seriously—so why should this be any different?
“I am disturbed in my meditation, because my movement in Germany is falling apart, and nobody is looking after it,” Srila Prabhupada said.
At the time, Dina Sharana wasn’t sure what she could do about this, why she was getting this spiritual inspiration. She wasn’t involved in management, and she wasn’t even living near a temple.
In fact, her story said a lot about the condition of the German Yatra (devotee community).
Dina Sharana Dasi had joined ISKCON in Germany in 1974, and had been initiated by Srila Prabhupada the same year at the Schloss Rettershof castle temple, ISKCON Germany’s headquarters at the time. She had served as a book distributor and priest to Sri Sri Radha Madan Mohan for many years, while her husband Chakravarti Dasa had printed over a million books for Srila Prabhupada.
But in the years after Srila Prabhupada passed away, during various guru controversies and political upheaval, Dina Sharana and her family were pushed out of the Yatra. They travelled the world for many years, with Chakravarti Dasa serving as temple president and Dina Sharana assisting him in Eastern countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines, as well as New Vrindaban in the USA.
Finally, in 1998, they had moved back to Germany because their children were tired of feeling uprooted and wanted to return home. They lived in Wiesbaden, where there had once been a thriving temple. But since the GBC and leading manager of ISKCON Germany had left the movement, the temple had shut down. The devotee community was depleted, spread out, and divided by politics.
Soon after, a friend of Dina Sharana’s who had been organizing a small group of devotees to meet once a month in a rented room, moved and passed her service on to Dina Sharana, who took it very seriously.
For several years, Dina Sharana cooked all the prasadam for the gathering herself, drove it along with the Deities—formerly of the Wiesbaden temple—to the location, carried it up three storeys, and set everything up.
“After the programs, I would clean up, drive the Deities and all the equipment back home, and carry them up the stairs to my room,” she says. “It would take me one week to get everything back to normal again.”
It was a service Dina Sharana had done right up until the day of her “kitchen inspiration.” It was a lot of work, and showed commitment. But now, as she stood there staring at her pots, she wondered if she would really be able to do anything to help the disintegrated German Yatra. Without an official position in ISKCON, she didn’t think so. But still, she felt obliged to Srila Prabhupada.
“I called my husband excitedly and told him that I felt like my whole life had changed,” she says. “My consciousness had been spread out throughout my life, like so many different railway tracks—now, they seemed to all converge together as one and go in one direction. For the first time in my life, I felt that I was really coming into my own.”
About six months after this experience, Dina Sharana found herself invited to the ISKCON Germany National Council meetings. Reflecting the state of the Yatra, the meetings were argumentative and unproductive, building in tension as they went on. Finally, Dina Sharana could take no more, and said, “We can’t go on like this.”
She spoke strongly, insisting that her monthly program be called a temple, although it didn’t have a permanent location. After all, the original Deities were in her care, and a group of devotees were gathering around them. Feeling her enthusiasm rise, she continued to speak, expressing her ideas and opinions on other topics.
Soon after the meetings, she was elected deputy for ISKCON Germany, although most of the members of the National Council didn’t even know her. When she asked them why they had voted for her, they replied simply, “You’re the one who made the most sense.”
“I spoke to all the leaders and other devotees, and understood how depressed they were at the condition of ISKCON Germany,” she says. “They wanted nothing to do with the movement or the GBC anymore—they were only continuing their service because they didn’t know how to do anything else. We were over one million Euros in debt, various Hindu groups were trying to take over our temples, and the whole Yatra was completely falling apart.”
Dina Sharana told the distraught leaders that she had a plan to rectify the situation. But first, she needed to talk to the GBC.
In 2005, with characteristic determination and confidence, she flew to Mayapur, ISKCON’s headquarters, and told management, “I want to talk to the GBC.”
“Like most devotees, despite all my years in the movement, I didn’t really understand how the GBC was organized or how it worked,” she says. “But now I learned that not just anybody could walk in and say what they thought—there was a procedure to follow. Over the next three days, I learned everything I could about how the GBC functioned. Then, through some devotees I knew, I approached the secretary, and step by step, I made my way into the GBC meetings.”
The GBC gave Dina Sharana twenty minutes to speak. She spoke for over an hour.
She told them with urgency and power how much difficulty Germany was in, how much it was in need, and how nobody was taking care of it. She presented to them her detailed plan for pulling ISKCON Germany out of the mess it was in.
“Krishna and Srila Prabhupada carried me through it, and I was in such an inspired euphoria that I wasn’t even ashamed to talk in that way to all thirty-six GBC members—who had served in their posts for over thirty years and were my senior Godbrothers,” she says. “Normally I might have been too nervous to even speak. But I was inspired to help my devotee community so much that I did it. And they listened.”
On Dina Sharana’s way out, Hungarian GBC Sivarama Swami followed her and asked her to explain her plan for Germany in more detail. After she had spent the next two hours doing so, he said, “I want to support you,” and gave her a donation of 5,000 Euro. The GBC body matched it, giving her another 5,000 Euro from their budget. It was only a drop in the ocean of Germany’s debt, but it made Dina Sharana feel that the GBC had heard her, that they were supporting her and trying to help.
When she returned home, there was work to be done. There were six pending courtcases over the one million Euros ISKCON Germany owed to various devotees, who were very inimical towards the movement as a result. Dina Sharana set about addressing each and every one of them personally, requesting them to be patient and promising that she was about to do everything she could to pay them back.
She then convinced all the temple presidents in Germany to get on board with her plan, and with the small amount of financial support they could give, went on a fundraising campaign to pay back the debt.
“The first donation I got was from a penniless old lady, who pledged €2.50 every two months because she was inspired by my effort, although she had nothing,” says Dina Sharana. “In turn, I was so inspired by her that, using her example, I was able to raise €700,000 and erase almost all our debt.”
To make sure that no new debt was incurred, Dina Sharana began restructuring systems, and soon found herself fully involved in the management of ISKCON Germany on all levels. She was, essentially, the acting GBC for the country.
But there was a problem. Dina Sharana was a woman.
“Many of the men didn’t like this woman coming from nowhere and making all these decisions and telling them what to do,” she says. “It didn’t help that I didn’t even have any official position. For the first four or five years, there were lots of politics against me, and it was very painful. I thought that I might have a nervous breakdown. I decided I was not doing myself or anyone else a favor by simply doing the job of a GBC without having the position. I thought, ‘If I’m good enough to do the work, I should be good enough to carry the title. If I’m not good enough to carry the title, then somebody else should do the work.”
Leaving the result up to Krishna, Dina Sharana applied as a candidate for the GBC. She was unanimously voted in, and although the process usually takes four years—first applicants become a candidate, then an assistant, then an acting GBC, and finally a full voting GBC—Dina Sharana was fast-forwarded through it since she had already been serving in the capacity of GBC for some time. In 2010, she became an acting GBC, and at the 2011 Mayapur GBC meetings, she was nominated as a full voting GBC for Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Lichenstein.
“Now, for the past two years, all my colleagues in ISKCON Germany have been supporting me in helping the Yatra, and I feel that we’re progressing positively,” she says. “There are still so many lacks—nothing has happened here for ten years—but we’re headed in the right direction.”
Dina Sharana is determined to instill confidence in the German devotees, who have been badly hurt and disappointed by past leaders.
“As the GBC, I am personally responsible for for the spiritual wellbeing of every devotee, and I have put myself down in the constitution as legally responsible for everything that happens in ISKCON Germany,” she says. “Some people have asked me, ‘Are you crazy?’ But it’s the only way to show them that I’m different. I won’t be running away and telling them, ‘You have to fix your problems on your own.’”
She’s serious. “If somebody in ISKCON Germany makes a big blunder, I go to jail. I want to make sure that things are done properly according to the law, morality, and Vaishnava behavior and etiquette. I want to make sure that ISKCON Germany becomes an organization that the whole country can respect, and that the devotees within it can respect. And the only way to achieve that, is for me to put my own head on the stake.”
As well as taking full responsibility herself, Dina Sharana is training others to take it on. Although at first she had to wear many different hats, taking care of everything herself, last year she was able to hand on six major responsibilities to devotees she has trained for the positions.
New Euro GBC Mangalananda Dasa, a leading book distributor in Germany for the past thirty years, is assisting Dina Sharana in her duties, and is making sure book distribution continues to increase—a major priority. Pradana Gopika Dasi, a highly qualified young devotee with a PhD in scientific journalism, is handling the brand new communications department with inspiring results. And another young devotee PhD has become the director of education, an important department working on training and succession.
“We’re also working with Yadunandana Swami and Jaya Krishna Dasa, who’s heading up the succession committee, to make plans for the future,” says Dina Sharana. “Temple presidents who have stuck it out for years are passing their knowledge and experience on to the new generation. The whole yatra is working together in a smooth and very nice manner. It’s wonderful. We’re very happy.”
On being only the second-ever woman full-voting GBC member, Dina Sharana says, “Yes, there have been times in the past few years where I’ve been more conscious that I’m in a woman’s body than at any other time in my life. But I didn’t feel any resistance at all from the GBC. I don’t think that there are only two women in the GBC because the male members have something against it—I think it’s just because not many women did the job required for that kind of position before. I’m convinced that the person who does the job, gets the job, regardless of their body.”
She adds: “There’s no woman/man issue. An issue only arises if men behave like men and women behave like women, rather than transcending their mentalities and their bodies and just being servants of Krishna.”
She does believe, however, that women GBC members can bring positive advantages to ISKCON’s leadership. “We are mothers, so we have a different way of thinking and reacting,” she says. “There are certain things that men don’t see, or that they don’t know how to deal with. I’m sure that qualified women can help spot a lot of things that went wrong in ISKCON’s past, and provide valuable input on how to fix these problems and avoid more mistakes in the future.”
There’s no doubt that the past few years have been life-changing for Dina Sharana. She feels that by the mercy of Lord Krishna and Srila Prabhupada, she’s been able to reach her full potential, both by improving her spiritual life and by using her talents to serve the Lord and his devotees.
“My biggest goal for the future as a GBC is to do whatever I can to help all of ISKCON Germany’s leaders reach their full potential," she says.