Essays on Women in Krishna Consciousness
by Nori J. Muster

I wrote the first two items in 1988, when I was still a member of ISCKON, and they were controversial at the time. In the years since 1988, ISKCON women have made some progress. However, like other fundamentalist religious groups, women's place is still a problem.

The essay, Life as a Woman on Watseka Avenue: Personal Story, was published in the book
Hare Krishna: The Post-charismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant, by Edwin Bryant, Ph.D., and Maria Ekstrand, Ph.D., eds., Columbia University Press, 2004.
"Women in Krishna Consciousness" 1988 speech

Unpublished 1988 ISKCON World Review editorial

Life as a Woman on Watseka Avenue, 2004 essay
Women in Krishna Consciousness: A Psychological Perspective
Presented in Towaco, New Jersey, in 1988

Women will never be the same as men. And anyway, who wants to live in a world of only men -- or women who are just like men? Women are a vital half of the human race because they are different. Lord Krishna mentions the feminine qualities in Bhagavad-gita: fame, fortune, fine speech, memory, intelligence, steadfastness, and patience. These positive traits spring from our basic intuitive and emotional makeup.

Emotion and intuition are sometimes thought of as bad -- as evils to be done away with. Actually, they are important interpersonal tools. It depends on your viewpoint -- "weakness" can translate to "sensitivity"; "vulnerability" to "humility"; and "emotion" to "love" or "understanding."

In a patriarchal or male-dominated society, women are looked upon as less intelligent. They stand in the back; don't get involved. But what you get is a limited, single-dimensional society. Men are usually objective, intellectual, and analytical. This system denies the sympathetic viewpoint necessary to round out the whole.

Women have a lot to contribute to humanity. Women have special abilities to accept and deal with emotions, and are able to foster growth, cooperation, and harmony. We may not be the cause of a conflict, but we can define it and bring it out into the open to resolve it.

Women are known for creativity. In ISKCON there have been more than a few great women artists, photographers, and designers. Women willingly accept the responsibility of sewing for the Deities and decorating the temple for festivals, a service every devotee appreciates.

There have also been women who are famous as preachers in ISKCON. Maybe it's because women know how to communicate; maybe it's because people are willing to listen to them. Maybe it's both. Lately there has been a lot of talk about letting women give the morning class, too. There's a lot women can contribute, given the chance.

Our ISKCON society has had to face a lot of problems. Even though it's not pleasant to talk about, we all know what they all are. Many of these problems can be solved if we just communicate better with each other. The qualities of understanding and sensitivity -- the feminine qualities -- are missing. That may be because women are expected to take a subordinate role instead of participating in the process.

For example, look at our problem with the teenage children. When the kids grow to a certain age they begin to realize a disparity between temple life and life in the outside world. They are tempted by television, skateboards, bubble gum -- all those things meant to lead them into maya.

[Editor's note: I wrote this in 1988 (when I was still a member of iskcon). Back then i thought kids were leaving ISKCON because they were tempted by television, skateboards, bubble gum. That was before I knew about the gurukula abuse, family violence and child neglect that were rampant in ISKCON. To say that the teenage kids were lured away by the material world was just another example of denial.]

Children are by nature honest and they don't like to be tricked. They look around and see a woman cop, or they may have a woman pediatrician. They come back to their mother and ask if a woman can be a cop or a doctor. The mother says, "No dear, a woman can never be happy in a man's role." She says it, but does she really believe it herself? How can she sincerely pass on the patriarchal viewpoint if she herself does not actually accept it?

And the child senses it. In fact, they begin to imagine that ISKCON is out of step with the rest of the world. The more the child grows and finds out about the world beyond gurukula, the more the disparity grows. Finally something has to give. Often the child rejects devotional life altogether.

A mother may develop a complex about being a woman; she echoes the words of the men, insisting on her own inferiority. She berates herself as a worthless creature, turns her face to the wall when a man passes by, and resigns herself to mediocrity, thinking herself "less intelligent."

But every devotee is important in spreading the mission. We can't afford to lose our soldiers to these self-inflicted injuries.

The fact that we've set up a patriarchal society within the American culture brings us a lot of flack anyway. It is a curiosity to the media, to onlookers, and to potential devotees.

Even more important, we must develop respect for one another as devotees of Krishna. We must not become overly absorbed in the bodily conception of "I am a man" or "I am a woman." Srila Prabhupada told us that the spirit soul is equal and that women who become devotees are as intelligent as their Godbrothers.

And what could women contribute, if given the chance?

In my case, I was asked to write for the ISKCON World Review. Actually, when you read what I write, it makes no difference whether a man or woman wrote the stories. It's not a job that can only be done by a man. And despite writing for the paper all these years, I haven't let it go to my head. I haven't tried to force my way into the GBC meetings or take over the temple president's office.

And I don't feel like the service is unnatural for me either. It's quite the opposite; being a woman has helped me. Because of my "emotional weaknesses" and "unpredictable" nature, I've been able to talk frankly to you all about many of the successes and failures of the movement over the last few years.

Writing a newspaper is a lot like giving Srimad-Bhagavatam class. Actually it doesn't matter what gender you are. Class means philosophy. So anyone who can speak the philosophy intelligently should be allowed to give class. Above and beyond that, women want to make a contribution. We want to add to the discussion and we have the qualities that ISKCON needs now: creativity, patience, gentleness, sympathy, and compassion.

Women have a lot to contribute. And if given a chance, they will have a positive and uplifting force on the movement.

ISKCON World Review Editorial
by Nori J. Muster
(never printed, see p. 174 of Betrayal of the Spirit)

Plato and Aristotle proclaimed that women are humans, but it was not until 550 AD that the Council of Macon acknowledged that women had souls. Now, in 1988, the ISKCON Current Affairs Seminar of Towaco, New Jersey, has debated whether or not women can be brahmanas [of the priestly caste]. Some said that women belong to a certain varna [caste] by qualification, i.e. a brahmani, or woman brahmana. Others argued that women are not members of any varna, but are categorized along with sudras, the lowest caste. Some suggested that Srila Prabhupada gave brahminical initiation to women just to pacify them, but it did not constitute real brahminical initiation.

The discussion about the role of women in ISKCON did not reach any conclusion. Many favored a liberal viewpoint, and many preferred a more traditional, doctrinal view. Thus the questions remain unresolved.

But we know that Srila Prabhupada was a true egalitarian. He did not discriminate on the basis of race, background, or gender. He saw only the spirit soul residing in different bodies. He had a spiritual understanding of women's role in society, based on his knowledge of Vedic culture. He also had special intelligence from Krishna, giving him the ability to bring Westerns to Krishna Consciousness.

We are followers of Srila Prabhupada, and whatever we have learned about Vedic culture has come from him. He came to the West and initiated disciples from what is considered the lowest culture: the society of meat-eaters. That in itself is controversial among adherents of the caste system, who doubt whether any of us from the West -- men or women -- could actually be considered brahmanas.

But Srila Prabhupada gave initiation to the people of the West with the understanding that anyone who is a Vaishnava -- a worshipper of Vishnu or Krishna -- has already surpassed the qualification of brahmanism.

In the early centuries of the Christian era, the Christian church developed its doctrines at meetings and councils. ISKCON seems to be going through a similar process. Therefore, when dealing with women's role in ISKCON, the first question to settle is whether or not a woman can be a brahmana. Another aspect of the womens' question is whether women can give the morning class, initiate, or hold other positions of responsibility within the ISKCON society.

It is hoped that the movement's leaders can officially adopt a more liberal attitude toward women, at least in the Western countries. This will bring us more in line with Srila Prabhupada's statement when he said, "Since both boys and girls are being trained to become preachers, those girls are not ordinary girls, but are as good as their brothers who are preaching Krishna Consciousness."