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.
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.
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?