Female Gurus

By Jordan Blumetti, originally posted at The Guardian.

Visakha Dasi, an early disciple of Prabhupada’s – tall and willowy, with streaky gray hair pulled back tight – lives with her family in a jungly neighborhood five minutes from the Alachua Temple.

In 2017, she published a memoir about giving up her career in New York as a photojournalist, meeting Prabhupada in India, and joining the movement. She is thought of by fellow devotees as one of the first to be nominated for the guru position should it be permitted.

But she quickly dispels this: “I don’t want to appear like I’m self-serving,” she says. “There are many qualified women, let me speak on their behalf.”

The official position of Iskcon on female gurus was put forth by Anuttama Dasa, global minister of communications and GBC member. “The role of guru is very sacred,” he says, “and trying to balance a religious tradition with modernity is complicated. The GBC is still trying to come to a consensus, but hasn’t yet.”

For now, Anuttama says, there are scarcely any women who openly seek the role, in part because the religion abhors self-serving individualism. But there are plenty of advocates, and younger disciples fighting for women to be their guru. In response to those who claim Visakha is motivated by her own self-interest, Anuttama says: “That’s nonsense.”

In his nigh 50-year career, “I’ve rarely, if ever, seen a woman who was motivated by power or position. I think they’re motivated by the fidelity of the tradition and their concern for future generations of women.” He adds there is parity between men and women in every country where Iskcon operates besides India, which happens to be the spiritual and administrative axis of the religion.

Visakha has been arguing for female gurus for 20 years, and has endured all manner of rebuff, constantly parrying the criticism that she’s a sell-out, a heretic, or, worst of all, a feminist – a term deeply maligned in the religion. “If a woman is qualified to lead, then she leads. It’s not very complex,” she tells me. “However, there’s all sorts of pushback, very complex pushback.”

A main point she makes is the existence of female gurus throughout Indian culture, contemporary and historical. But their presence is often construed as provisional, supplementary, or licentious. One of her most outspoken critics, an American living in Mumbai called Krishna-kirti Dasa, claims that the advanced role of women in Vaishnavi culture corresponded with the sex cults of the 17th and 18th century.

He worries that allowing the influence of women to grow will result in similar sexual indulgences. “If you do allow the unrestricted mixing of men and women, then this is what happens,” he told me. “This” meaning deviant sex, gender parity and “all sorts of abominable things in the name of religion”.

Visakha has compiled an arsenal of passages and quotes over the years from Prabhupada’s writings and lectures, which includes his now infamous response to an inquiry about female gurus in 1976: “She can become guru.”

This article was originally published at The Guardian, and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

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One Response to Female Gurus

  1. I have met Western-born men who spent the first 20 years of their lives as beef-eaters, but now wear a sacred thread and insist not only that they are qualified to serve as gurus, but also that an Indian woman born into a family of brahmanas is disqualified because of her gender, no matter her personal purity and advancement.

    These men are quick to quote scriptures supporting their point, but they are not so responsive when Indian-born men quote scriptures (sometimes the very same scriptures!) to prove that a man born as a mleccha must wait until his next lifetime to serve as a guru, or even to wear a sacred thread, no matter how far he advances in this lifetime.

    In the lineage of BSST, we are quick to condemn as sahajiyas those men who wear saris in an attempt to meditate on their eternal identity. We know that we are not this body, so there are limits in what we can do externally to facilitate our internal meditation. In that regard, then, isn’t it a similar deviation to wear one’s “maleness” or “femininity” on the mistaken assumption that it conveys spiritual substance?

    One objection that comes from the “male gurus only” section is that a woman can’t give the sacred thread to a man. Well, let’s remember that, before BSST, the sacred thread was part of varnashrama-dharma, not bhakti. They became linked only within BSST’s daivi-varnashrama. Before BSST, I believe we can safely assume that although Bhaktivinoda did not wear a sacred thread, this did not stop him from meditating on his identity as a brahmana boy in the eternal Navadvipa. A qualified female guru who doesn’t give the sacred thread can still bestow Krishna-bhakti, and there is no reason to think that she cannot bestow the other various gayatri mantras, even if she forgoes the giving of brahma-gayatri and sacred thread.

    ISKCON can establish whatever rules it finds helpful. That is not in doubt. But this does not stop others, like the devotees of Sri Guru Prapanna Ashram, from respecting qualified women as gurus. ISKCON may legislate itself into irrelevancy, but it cannot stop the free flow of faith and the zig-zag flow of spiritual substance. Self-effulgent female gurus, not institutional legislation, will ultimately resolve this matter in the hearts of devotees.

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