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Religion Library: ISKCON (Hare Krishna)

Gender and Sexuality

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

During the 1990s, ISKCON's female devotees began to organize and support grassroots efforts to correct their treatment by the male leaders of the organization. At the same time, a shortage of male volunteers led the movement to turn to increasing number of women to serve in middle management positions in the organization, and even lead ISKCON temples.

By the late 1990s, ISKCON's Governing Body Commission (GBC) made several efforts to redress the condition of women in the organization. It has mandated that women receive equal access to worship and rituals, and moved away from theological positions of women's spiritual inferiority. In 1998, the GBC appointed a woman as a member, including female representation on ISKCON's highest decision-making body for the first time. The GBC subsequently stated that it has no theological opposition to a women serving as a guru, though it has yet to appoint any female gurus.

The women active in leading ISKCON to a more welcoming view of women have been careful to divorce themselves from any concept of feminism or gender egalitarianism. The fact that they have had to eschew such notions shows the manner in which ISKCON still views itself as a conservative religious organization that rejects the social norms of Western culture. Despite moves away from sectarianism in recent decades, the Hare Krishna movement still looks to mainstream American and European society as corrupt, sinful, and decadent. For many within ISKCON, non-devotee women's full social equality and particularly their sexual freedom highlights such sinfulness and decadence. Consequently, the Hare Krishna movement has been careful to position its increased openness to women's equality and leadership as fully in keeping with Vedic norms. To this regard, it often relies on the notion of the eternal soul, or jiva, that only temporarily inhabits a male or female body. Its leaders have also pointed to cases where Bhaktivedanta himself ignored strictures on women by encouraging them to preach and engage in public ritual acts of devotion.

Study Questions:
     1.    What are the gender roles of men and women within ISKCON?
     2.    How does leadership differ for men and women? Where can each lead?
     3.    What events of the 1990s created a movement toward gender equality?