An Open Letter to The Present
And Future ISKCON Devotees
January 14th, 2023
Dear Esteemed Vaishnavas and Vaishnavis,
Our most respectful obeisances to you all. All glories to our beloved Founder-Acharya, Srila Prabhupada.
We are a group of women disciples of Srila Prabhupada who have been sincerely serving his ISKCON for fifty-some years.
We’ve been on the front lines of preaching; we’ve helped build and maintain temples; we’ve translated, produced, and distributed BBT books, and brought many of our current leaders to Srila Prabhupada’s movement. We’ve also raised families, helped grow communities, and practiced Krsna consciousness with dedication and faith.
What’s more, as the first generation of Srila Prabhupada’s Vaishnavi followers, there is one thing we all share: the experience of how His Divine Grace cared for us and empowered us to serve to our fullest capacity in Lord Chaitanya’s movement. Yet today we share a grave concern.
Recent events have shown us that, under threat from one part of our Society, some are willing to sacrifice the integrity and dynamism of Prabhupada’s worldwide movement by disempowering its women devotees.
Is there perhaps an intention by some to stall and stall the empowerment of Vaishnavi Diksha gurus until all of Srila Prabhupada’s women disciples have passed away? Or, until they have all become physically incapable of performing this service? Such a travesty should never occur.
If Srila Prabhupada’s immediate spiritual daughters continue to be denied the opportunity to serve as initiating spiritual masters—despite Srila Prabhupada’s clear instruction that we do so—that could set a tragic precedent for future generations.
At the present moment, there is much concern in our ISKCON society about the abuse of children and women. Women, who are mostly also mothers, are the natural protectors and caretakers of the children. But when their voices are ignored, silenced, or maligned, this opens the door for women and children to be abused.
It’s unfortunate that some women in ISKCON feel that they are being prevented from serving Srila Prabhupada as he envisioned. Many have also lost faith and left our society due to the disrespect or abuse they received in our temples from male authorities.
Moreover, there are women who have lost trust or been harmed by male authority figures even before joining ISKCON. As a result, some of those women feel they can open their hearts more sincerely, and better reveal their minds, to a Vaishnavi Diksha guru.
One woman said if she can’t receive initiation from the Vaishnavi guru of her choice, she’ll wait until her next life to receive initiation. This is heartbreaking. Why should a serious and qualified aspirant be left in limbo, especially since the GBC had already given their blessings for Vaishnavi Diksha gurus, but then abruptly withdrew those blessings?
Why not allow a few qualified Vaishnavis to initiate a few sincere, deserving disciples? (At least a few women disciples.) What is the harm? No harm at all, according to Prabhupada and sastra:
“The qualification of guru is that he must be fully cognizant of the science of Kṛṣṇa. Then he or she can become guru. Yei kṛṣṇa-tattva-vettā, sei guru haya.” (Interview with Professors O’Connell, Motilal, and Shivaram, June 18, 1976, Toronto)
In a letter to Hansadutta, Prabhupada wrote: “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…That is my program.”
(Letter to: Hansadutta, January 3, 1969, Los Angeles)
Some of those who want to stop Prabhupada’s women disciples from fulfilling his order are quick to reference sampradayas that forbid women to initiate. Why ignore those that allow them?
Throughout Gaudiya history, women have been giving initiation. Even today, women give initiation in different branches of the Gaudiya Math. In the Nimbarka Sampradaya, there have been women spiritual masters for a thousand years. And there are other women gurus in present-day India as well.
Within ISKCON, Vaishnavi Diksha gurus have been endorsed by the SAC (Sastric Advisory Council), the SABHA (Spiritual Advisors Bhagavat Assembly), the North American Council, the Australian Council, and several ISKCON Ministries. Do their voices, like those of Prabhupada’s women disciples, also not count?
Some devotees maintain that women may give siksha, or instruction, but not diksha. Yet, in his purport to CC Adi 1.34, Srila Prabhupada writes: “The initiating and instructing spiritual masters are equal and identical manifestations of Krsna, although they have different dealings.” And, in his purport to Adi 1.47, His Divine Grace further clarifies: “If one foolishly discriminates between them, he commits an offense in the discharge of devotional service.”
Most recently, a resolution was passed by the GBC mandating a moratorium on VDG for up to three years. (ISKCON News https://iskconnews.org/gbc-pauses-vaishnavi-diksa-gurus-again/.)
Again, is it the intention of some who oppose qualified Vaishnavi’s giving initiation to stall until the remaining women disciples of Srila Prabhupada have passed away? Then it could be said to future generations of Vaisnavis: “Srila Prabhupada’s direct women disciples did not give initiation, so how can you?”
The moratorium’s proposers claim that its main purpose is to discuss and clarify the issue of guru-tattva in ISKCON. But if that’s true, why not suspend all initiations by both men and women? Why suspend only initiations by women?
In 2021, the GBC adopted a resolution that recognized “cultural sensitivity” in different areas of the world. That is, if a certain region was not in favor of Vaishnavi Diksha gurus, then that area would be free to “opt-out” or forbid VDGs. In other words, each region would decide what would best serve their community and preaching needs.
We welcome the need for cultural sensitivity, as did an overwhelming majority of voting GBCs. But some voices in India, ignoring Srila Prabhupada’s call for “unity in diversity,” have refused to respect those areas of the world with preaching needs different than their own.
Prabhupada’s teachings are clear: He wants us to unite around universal spiritual principles while diversifying their application “in terms of time, country, and candidate” (CC Madhya 23.105 purport).
This is key to finding the cooperation we’ll need to take Krsna consciousness to every town and village. Indeed, as Prabhupada said in his last year with us, our love for him would be shown by how we cooperate together. Yet, those who oppose diversity are now destroying our unity. With all due respect, this is not cooperation; it is coercion.
Some people contend that since Srila Prabhupada didn’t select any women to give initiation, so, after his departure, neither should we. But neither, for example, did His Divine Grace select any Indian, Chinese, African, or Russian devotees.
Does this mean that male devotees from those backgrounds are not eligible to offer diksha in ISKCON? Of course not. Srila Prabhupada dismissed the bodily conception of life. So why now cling to the same misconception and discriminate against Vaishnavis?
In the West, professors tell us the two issues that most concern university students are caring for the environment and equity for women. And in the West, many educated second-generation and third-generation people of the Indian diaspora say that denying women equal opportunity undermines their interest in Krsna consciousness.
Should this not motivate us to adopt “cultural sensitivity” and Srila Prabhupada’s instructions regarding “time, place, and circumstance” as fundamental principles of his global movement?
Dear devotees of the future: If the qualified women disciples of Srila Prabhupada, who are now in their 70s, are not allowed to offer initiation, know for certain that giving them this service opportunity was the desire and instruction of our beloved Founder-Acharya. Please do not let this service be denied to qualified Vaishnavis of your generation, as it has so far been denied to ours.
Finally, dear ISKCON leaders, we humbly ask: Can you allow a few senior women who have faithfully served ISKCON for some fifty years to offer initiation as Prabhupada wanted in those areas of the world that welcome them? Can you not honor the cultural sensitivity that was recently endorsed?
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Atma Tattva Das, ISKCON News Staff Writer
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