Tirupati, India—The Governing Body Commission (GBC) of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) recently completed a special three-day session during which the GBC Body considered whether or not this worldwide Vaishnava community should endorse and implement the policy of having women serve as diksa-gurus, or initiating spiritual masters, within the ISKCON society.
The special session was held from October 16-18 and was part of the GBC’s Annual Midterm Meeting. During this first of its kind conference, almost three-dozen GBC Members and Ministers spent three full days exclusively studying, discussing and debating an issue of historical and social importance to ISKCON.
“Some may be disappointed to learn that no final vote was taken,” said Anuttama dasa, GBC Chairman, “but I think thoughtful ISKCON devotees will appreciate that the GBC is taking a methodical, introspective and prayerful approach to this issue, and is not ignoring any of the many viewpoints in its discussions.”
Preparation for the Vaishnavi Diksa Guru (VDG) discussion was exhaustive. The GBC Executive Committee (EC) engaged a team of researchers based in the Chowpatty Temple in Mumbai for over two months to catalogue all the quotations on the topic from ISKCON’s Founder-acarya His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and other prominent acaryas, or spiritual preceptors, revered by the ISKCON society. In addition, the Chowpatty team researched dozens of papers written by ISKCON members on the VDG topic and catalogued those for cross-referencing.
In all, almost one thousand pages of documents, sastric quotes, and commentaries were organized and presented to the GBC in advance of the meeting. On the first day of the special session, the GBC began, after its traditional arati worship of Srila Prabhupada, with an hour of quiet study and meditation.
“We wanted the members to be in the right frame of mind for this meeting,” explained Praghosa dasa, GBC Vice Chairman. “Therefore we started with quiet time for members to look over notes, reread any articles or sastric references they chose, and in short, slow down the pace of the session so as to facilitate in depth discussion.”
“The Executive Committee of the GBC was not interested in facilitating a debate among people with fixed positions on the matter,” said Sesa dasa, GBC Second Vice Chairman, “our purpose, and the purpose of the GBC was to have a respectful, deep discussion on Vaishnavi diksha gurus, and open our minds to try to understand what would best please Srila Prabhupada and Lord Krishna.”
Over the next three days, the GBC EC and Vraja Vihari dasa, a professionally trained facilitator, engaged GBC members in a variety of plenary meetings, breakout groups, round robin contributions, written responses, and straw votes to help the body analyze in detail key issues.
“There are voluminous references and nuances on this topic in scripture and Prabhupada’s teachings,” said Anuttama. “ISKCON members tend to reference the quotes that support their position on the question of women gurus. However, our point was to understand not just the quotes, but the context, the relative importance and the principles behind these various references in the mood of humble servants of our previous acaryas.”
Three key questions arose during the first day of discussions:
Another critical question was sociological in scope. Vaishnava culture values the traditional family, including the important role women play as wives and mothers.
“Some members were concerned that if the GBC endorses VDG, it will be misinterpreted as an endorsement of those western values that contradict Vaishnava and varnashrama principles including the sanctity of the home and child raising,” said Anuttama. “That is not at all the message or the intention of the GBC.”
Discussion of the above issues took up the meeting’s second day. The third and final day was focused on assimilating points raised in small groups. Those included what special circumstances, if any, are needed for the GBC to authorize women to initiate.
Included in that analysis were these questions:
a) Should there be a minimum age requirement for VDG? (none exists for male gurus, although generally a man must be 50 years old before he can become a sannyasi)
b) Should there be a restriction on the gender of disciples accepted?
c) Should a potential guru have to demonstrate financial, ashrama and personal stability (required in part of male gurus)?
d) Should there be a measurable requirement of sastric proficiency?
e) Should a history of at least 15 years of steady service to ISKCON be required?
One point stressed repeatedly was the need for cultural sensitivity. In particular, several members felt that if there were VDG there must be respect for the cultural differences around the world, and the GBC should, for example, restrict VDG from initiating in India unless the local leadership endorsed the idea.
The final day of the special session focused on plenaries where members reflected on the discussion so far and what direction to go. Several straw votes or directional, not binding, votes were held.
The results gave a sense of the GBC Body’s inclinations, but were not final or conclusive. The GBC process of straw votes—which is utilized during every GBC meeting—allows members to vote either “generally in favor,” “generally opposed,” or “generally undecided” in regards to the topic on the floor.
The final straw vote of the session showed that a significant majority of the Body was “generally in favor” of having VDG in ISKCON if reasonable circumstances could be established, and if a paper was written to explain the policy and ensure no traditional values or social sensitivities were ignored or demeaned in the implementation.
A majority of “generally in favor” votes is not conclusive, but it does reflect the spirit of the Body on a particular topic. Rather than push for a premature final decision, the Executive Committee used its discretion and decided to continue the process of deliberations and research, and will bring the topic back for additional contemplation in Mayapura.
The EC was tasked to provide a paper clarifying the circumstances under which VDG would be (tentatively) acceptable to the GBC Body and the principle reasons for such a policy. All is to be based on the discussions from the special session and the aforementioned voluminous research.
“The GBC clearly doesn’t want to rush any decision,” said Anuttama.
Perhaps the most significant event to come out of this first special session was the GBC’s commitment and enthusiasm for future special sessions to study other social, theological and philosophical issues. Next year’s Mid-Term meeting in October 2015 will set aside two days for special topics. And, the EC was tasked to find time during the GBC’s Annual Meeting in February 2015 to, in addition to a conclusive discussion on the VDG question, to take up other major issues for deep study and discussion.
“I’m very optimistic,” said Anuttama. “Srila Prabhupada stated the GBC is ISKCON’s ultimate managing authority. That means overseeing the practical management as well as being the highest ecclesiastical body of ISKCON. The GBC has concentrated for several years on its strategic planning meetings, with positive and tangible results. I pray that this addition of in-depth study on the key questions that face our society will enhance the quality of the GBC’s leadership and strengthen Srila Prabhupada’s society around the globe.”[ governing-body-commission ] [ guru ] [ vaishnavi ]