Women in ISKCON

Women in Patriarchal Religion

Essays with examples from ISKCON (Hare Krishna movement)

by Nori Muster

Orthodox religions, including Muslim, Christian and Hindu, have a patriarchal structure where women are subordinate. Muslim women must cover their whole bodies even in extreme heat; Catholic women are barred from priesthood or authority in the Church; and Hindu women have been murdered when their husbands die and repressed in other ways.

In Christianity, the most revered woman is the Virgin Mary, who by her very name is above the sin of sexuality. Hating women for their sexual power is common in many cultures. Hindu men, for example, will go to prostitutes for sex instead of their wives, in order to preserve their wives' purity. The Hindu scriptures only condone sex for procreation and there are rules and rituals that accompany the sex, in order to assure good progeny.

Another example of Christian chauvinism is the story of Adam and Eve, where the man would only succumb to a forbidden act due to the bad influence of his wife. They would never consider that Adam was responsible for what he did. Lionel Corbett, author of Religious Function of the Psyche, points out that early Christian clergymen who may have had unresolved problems and simultaneous fascination with sex, were too closed-minded to accommodate both sides of woman, so they made an "intrapsychic split," recognizing sexless women as good. That way, the whole issue of sex is moot.

Dr. Corbett argues that early Christian men would have found deeper religious meaning if they had explored the dark side of their psyche to resolve unhealthy attitudes about women. Historically, sex became a dark shadow, numinous, frightening and forbidding. The power of the negative archetype was measured in human suffering when early Christian fathers burned women at the stake in Europe.

The Archetype of the Temptress

ISKCON provides a late twentieth century example of a culture that regards sex as evil, and that treats women and children (the products of sex) as though they were worthless. In the Los Angeles ISKCON community where I lived, men who married were criticized for "giving in" to "lusty desires." Men who could bypass marriage for a life of celibacy were regarded as heros. In fact, men who took sannyas initiation, the vow of lifelong celibacy, were automatically elevated to leadership positions, and received various respects.

The worship of sannyasis started in the early 1970s in ISKCON when a group of men became sannyasis in a more or less blatant grab for power. They got what they were after because new recruits are taught to automatically respect any sannyasi by bowing down, calling them "maharaja," allowing them to lead temple services, lead the morning class, and so on. Within the ISKCON order of sannyas, there were several very powerful men who were homosexual misogynists and pedophiles. This opened the door for other homosexual pedophiles to pose as sannyasis, gurus, GBC members, or respected community members. The toxic sannyasis could easily abstain from heterosexual sex, plus they had the advantage of spending a lot of time alone together, and the scriptures supported their hatred of women.

At the same time children were being abused and neglected, gurus and sannyasis were flying around the world, living in spacious, private quarters in the temples, eating gourmet meals and managing large sums of money. They said they were accepting their admirers' hospitality; they saw themselves as important spiritual figures in the religious lineage. However important and rich the ISKCON leaders may have been, because of their attitudes, many innocent people suffered.

In India, Hinduism evolved in similar ways as the Catholic church. Although the Hindu gods are sensual and sexual, throughout modern history, most Hindu sects have proclaimed women's inferiority and impurity. Insulting stories and declarations against women are abundant in the Hindu scriptures. Consider this quotation from a 1952 Oxford University Press summary study of the Ramayana entitled, The Holy Lake of the Acts of Rama, in which Lord Rama tells the sage Narada Muni,

Lust, wrath, greed, pride and all the other passions form the strong army of infatuation; but amongst them all the most dangerous and tormenting foe is woman, illusion incarnate. Harken, sage; the Puranas and the Vedas and the saints declare that woman is the season of spring to the forest of delusion; and every woman, like the summer heat, dries up all the pools of prayer and penance and religious observance. Lust and wrath and pride and jealousy are frogs and she alone rains to gladden them. Evil inclinations are a bed of lilies and she the autumn ever to cherish them. All forms of religion are like lotuses, withered by sensual woman as by the frost of winter. Woman, again, is the cool season fostered by which the javasa grove of selfishness flourishes. Woman is a night, impenetrably dark, to bring delight to all the owls of sin; a hook to catch all the fish of sense and strength and goodness and truth; so say the wise. A young and wanton woman is the root of all evil, a torment and the source of every woe. (p. 322)

Passages denigrating women are right there in the scriptures, endorsed by Hindu scholars, making it impossible to discuss the issue with dogmatic followers of the religion. Although Srila Prabhupada was more progressive than some Hindu scholars, the scriptures he translated contain chauvinistic "just so" stories about why women are evil. A good example is in the Fifth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, where several chapters describe the "Forest of Material Enjoyment." In this story, the avadhuta (holy man) Jada Bharata compares wife and children to wolves who steal a man's possessions and spiritual achievement. In the conclusion, Jada Bharata advises King Rahugana to leave his family to become an ascetic sage until the end of life. This is the purpose of "sannyas," total renunciation of the material world. Hindu men learn that total detachment - especially from women - is their goal in old age.

One goddess in the Hindu pantheon, Maha Maya, a consort of Lord Vishnu, is said to personify the illusion of the material world. The scriptures state that although the material world is temporary and ultimately unreal, Maya's work is to make humans believe this life is all there is. Women, seen as expansions of Maya, are Maya's main weapon in this work, and thus it is female energy that ultimately ties men to the cycle of rebirth (samsara). In ISKCON, Bhagavatam speakers regularly described this concept; devotees referred to women as maya, and as a result, a percentage of ISKCON women believed that they were burdens to men's spiritual advancement. In the gurukulas, teachers also taught these concepts to the students.

Whatever problems the Hindu scriptures offer women of twentieth century America, ISKCON multiplied for their followers. It's one thing to be born in a country where the religion was rooted over thousands of years; quite another to transplant the religion into 1960s America. While Americans were flirting with "free love," ISKCON demanded that all members follow the "four regulative principles," including the ban against "illicit sex." It was a policy of denial to accept members from the mainstream culture and press them into the cookie cutter of ISKCON's rules. The policy was an obvious failure, considering all the child molestation, forced homosexuality in the men's dorms, and numerous other forms of illicit sex that ultimately stained ISKCON.

ISKCON emphasized other chauvinistic concepts as well. The Hindu scriptures contain numerous stories that most Americans would consider racist. Rather than interpret the stories for 1960s political correctness, officials like Hamsadutta, one of the eleven gurus, openly professed pro-Nazism, backing it up with rhetoric from the scriptures.

Scriptural interpretations evolve over time, so it's up to the living practitioners to set the tone for how the scriptures will be interpreted. For example, in American literature we have the example of Mark Twain who used derogatory terms that also showed racism. However, few modern readers take the attitude, "If Mark Twain can say it, so can I."

ISKCON could have adopted a more liberal interpretation, but officials basically said, "Ancient India was chauvinistic and so are we." Bhagavatam speakers and gurus used their time on the vyasasana (seat of the guru) to verify and condone scriptural passages that promoted abuse. My ISKCON guru Ramesvara was notorious for his long and passionate lectures explaining the details of why sex outside of procreation is sinful.

Celibacy in ISKCON

Celibacy is expected of all men and women within ISKCON, even the leaders. However, celibacy was the most difficult rule to enforce among the leaders, and most of the leadership crises can be traced to deviations from this regulative principle. The only allowance for sex in ISKCON is between people who are legally married if they wish to conceive children. Couples were advised to remain celibate even within marriage in order to maintain their religious status in the community. When someone can tell you how to dress, what to read and when to have sex, they have taken over complete control of your life. This was the reality within ISKCON. Also, not all marriages were celibate. Sometimes the leaders rewarded drug dealers and other big contributors with an arranged marriage. In some of these unions, the men abused their wives emotionally, physically and sexually. The institution discouraged normal sexual expression; which may explain the rise of deviant homosexual child abuse, wife beating and other forms of abuse.

Incest happens most frequently in households where playful and friendly touching are absent, and where talking about sex is forbidden. In a sexually repressed atmosphere, there is a dangerous intrapsychic split as Corbett described, and the weakest members of the family, the children, are often the victims of the phantoms lurking in adult minds.

Celibacy is an element of many religions, for example, the priesthood in the Catholic church. People revere priests for their restraint, as Richard Sipe points out in his book A Secret World, a study of celibacy among Catholic Priests: "A powerful impact is made, even on non-believers, when a believer is so convinced of his cause and so dedicated to his beliefs that he is willing to give up all sexual pleasures in their behalf." (p. 59) Celibacy also exists in the Hindu priesthood, including the ISKCON lineage, in which Srila Prabhupada's guru was said to remain celibate throughout his entire life. In Sanskrit this is called naistake (always) brahmachari (celibate practitioner). Although Prabhupada's guru could do it, it takes a great amount of maturity to handle celibacy. Enforcing it can be traumatic, as it has turned out for ISKCON and the children of ISKCON.

In its ideal form, celibacy is a spiritual practice that involves an internal marriage, between the spiritual aspirant and Christ, God, or another deity, according to their faith. However, within ISKCON, spiritual ecstasies were rare, and although there were a few truly happy celibate members who were satisfied in their relationship with God, the overall attitude toward celibacy was less spiritual. Many devotees believed it was impossible, so they either married or disregarded their vows of celibacy from the beginning. Some of the leaders who lectured and shamed others, then had problems with their own sexuality. The institutional blaming of women and all things feminine helped men rationalize their own problems. With strict chauvinistic attitudes in place, celibate men with sexuality problems could project their inadequacies onto women and thus avoid dealing with their own core issues.

Unfortunately, ISKCON's girls became the most helpless targets of twisted adult attitudes. An article about the Dallas gurukula quoted one preadolescent girl: "I don't wear my hair loose because it will attract men's minds. And I wear saris so the men won't get attracted to my body." The adults taught girls that they were sinful, lusty beings, and that they were "prostitutes," whose developing bodies would throw men off of the spiritual path. They blatantly wanted girls to feel ashamed of their bodies. If a man raped a girl, they told the girl it was her fault. In addition, they would sometimes force girls to marry those men whom they had "tempted." The GBC and Education Ministry ruled that it would be best to segregate boys and girls in the schools, in order to keep the evil nature of girls from corrupting the boys. Female teachers were thought to have a bad influence on adolescent boys, hence all the teachers in the Vrindavana, India, gurukula were male. The all-male administration treated the students with a heartless combination of neglect and abuse. Homosexual molestation was common and all the students suffered harsh corporal punishment. Teachers commonly slapped children until they bled, or beat them with shoes, belts or sticks, then locked them in cold cement bathrooms without food.

Although girls were spared the physical and sexual abuse common in ISKCON's schools in India, they suffered an even more devastating fate. Marrying pre-teenaged girls to older men was the most offensive sexual practice in the Hare Krishna movement. Life magazine mentioned this in their April 1980 cover story about New Vrindaban gurukula called, "Children of a Harsh Bliss," when they printed a picture of a young girl with this caption: "The fourteen-year-old at right, caught in a reflective moment, was married recently. Her sister, sixteen, is married and pregnant."

A note about New Vrindaban: Some people rationalize anything that happened at New Vrindaban by saying "New Vrindaban is outside of ISKCON." However, New Vrindaban has been "inside" and "outside" of ISKCON many times, so it is still connected historically. Besides, that's like saying incest didn't happen because the perpetrator was only an uncle or cousin. Furthermore, some GBC leaders want to readmit New Vrindaban, so it is important to examine New Vrindaban in the course of studying the history of ISKCON. In addition, many of New Vrindaban's chauvinistic attitudes permeate ISKCON. [Note: The ISKCON GBC re-admitted New Vrindaban in 1998 and it remains part of ISKCON.]

Hridayananda, one of the original eleven gurus, BBT Trustees, sannyasis and early GBC members, praised the coverage in Life magazine, saying,

"The mention of a sixteen-year-old pregnant wife and a fourteen-year-old who will get married came off very well. The article mentioned that one is married and the other is getting crushes. These days, there's a big movement in America against illicit sex, and these early marriages show our concern for not letting women become polluted."

Although men in the GBC argued in favor of this practice whenever it was called into question, the fact was that pre-adolescent girls were forced into these marriages. Imagine the humiliation of a young girl forced to consummate a marriage with a man she despises, who is twice or three times her age. The girls were too young to have any interest in, or even knowledge of, sex or marriage. The husbands were from the older generation and often abusive. GBCs and temple presidents took part in the betrothals, giving child brides to men who made large donations, often of money they had earned illegally through drug dealing or other crimes. The parents often went along with the arrangements because they trusted the ISKCON officials as much as people of other faiths trust their clergy. However, due to their denial, parents failed to see the problems they were giving the girls.

Having a child bride became a status symbol in the patriarchy, and any man who was a department head or temple president felt they deserved to have a child bride. It was still going on in Los Angeles into the 1980s. Through the practice of early marriages, ISKCON broke statutory rape laws, as well as generational boundaries. Their heinous incestuous practice devastated their children's young lives. It is ironic that they also placed such emphasis on chastity, celibacy and isolating the boys from the girls. Here are some excerpts from the V.O.I.C.E. Website, from people who were raised in the abusive gurukulas:

"Most of the girls I grew up with ended up getting married off to 'twisted old men."

"She was fourteen and married to some thirty year old jerk in Vrindavan. She expressed to me that she was very upset to be in that position."

"When I was twelve, I was betrothed. He was our teacher. This was forced upon me. What was? A whole new aspect of life that I was not ready for. I did not even have breasts yet, I was a little kid who was just starting to get used to having parents and perhaps even the security (stability) that could go with that. And now I was supposed to look at the teacher as a potential sex-partner. What was sex? A dirty, gross act."

"It was thrust upon me. I had no sexual feeling or curiosity. I was too busy trying to fight for survival and hold onto an identity to even begin to start wondering about that aspect of life. Its an intrusion, and its not based on what the individual needs. Its based on assumption. Its guilt and the belief that sex is wrong and sinful, a distraction from god and worship thereof, and also that women should be subservient to men. Because for some reason god created them as less and they have to go through someone else, their pati [husband]-guru to experience god's love. God won't deal with them directly because they're so stupid and dirty and they're cursed, etc."

"We were called prostitutes all the time, we were kids."

Codependent observers minimize the violence when they say, "The arranged marriages didn't work out." Twelve and thirteen year old girls were virtually consigned into incestuous sexual slavery. Some of the eleven gurus openly condoned hitting as a means of controlling the young brides, thus causing some of them to suffer severe physical, as well as emotional and sexual abuse. The husbands would typically rape their wives if the girls were unwilling to participate in sex, and then blame the girls for having incited the sex acts through their "lusty" behavior. The fact that the scriptures seem to support this view, contributes to the victims' guilt. Saying simply that "the marriages didn't work out," cleans up a messy situation by comparing these forced, violent marriages to marriages between consenting adults who later get divorced. Similar problems have come to light in the Mormon religion, where they also practice polygamy and incest.

Articles by Nori Muster:

Distortion of Scriptures
Then and Now - Thirteen Years After Leaving ISKCON