Gender and Sexuality
Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller
With the possible exception of the nature of leadership, the notion of gender has lead to the most controversy and acrimony among members of the Hare Krishna movement. Bhaktivedanta cleaved to highly traditional Bengali notions of gender and introduced such notions to his movement. Men, the swami taught, achieved spiritual development not only through private devotion but through public work, whereas women depended primarily on the religious merit of their husbands. Though Bhaktivedanta made some exceptions for devotee women, he generally insisted on a hierarchical relationship model wherein women must submit to the authority of their male gurus, husbands, and other male devotees. In matters of education, he encouraged women to learn how to cook and clean in order to serve their husbands, who would focus on the texts and rituals of Vaishnavism.
Bhaktivedanta's understanding of gender demonstrates more complexity than one might otherwise assume. Though he frequently denigrated women as innately inferior to men, naturally sinful, and disobedient, at other times he stated that these statements referred to only non-devotee women. Many female devotees reported that Bhaktivedanta was warm and caring, and treated them respectfully. Still, ISKCON's official teachings clearly considered women mentally and spiritually inferior to men, and this position has had serious repercussions.
From its earliest days ISKCON excluded women from positions of spiritual and bureaucratic leadership. Only men would take the sannyasi orders, becoming celibate monastic leaders. Since the movement reserved the most important leadership positions for such sannyasis, women could not exert institutional leadership. In keeping with Bengali social norms, Bhaktivedanta tended to appoint only men even to positions that did not require a sannyasi. Women found the most opportunity for leadership roles in ISKCON's public relations office and its educational system, the gurukula schools.
Recent years have yielded a slow trickle of increased women's empowerment. In many ways, the situation only became better for women because it had become worse following the guru's death in 1977. While Bhaktivedanta had often softened his own teachings when referring to individual female disciples, the young celibate men who assumed the leadership of ISKCON after his death tended to view women as liabilities and dangerously-alluring sex objects. A recent survey of ISKCON devotees performed by E. Burke Rochford, Jr. revealed that many women felt objectified, devalued, excluded, and marginalized during the decade after Bhaktivedanta's death. The same study also revealed that many suffered from physical and sexual abuse.