Women Gurus In Kali Yuga?

By Govinda Dasi - 3.11 2023

First let me say I am writing my opinions on this issue only because of repeated emails and postings. Frankly, I had hoped to stay out of it, but since some postings have even taken the liberty of expressing my opinions at a time when there were none, I have decided I must say something.

My first response to this issue was, with mild disbelief, “Why would any woman even want to become a guru?!” “Why would anyone want to take on someone else’s karmas?” So let me say early on, that I am in no way a contender for any such position, either in this life or the next. Frankly, I personally am much more interested in clearing my own remaining karmas and going back to Godhead than in taking on anyone else’s karmas.

Regarding the issue, male vs. female: Such kinds of strong identification and attachment to the temporary male/female bodily identities are a great detriment to spiritual life. Srila Prabhupada taught us that this human life is very short, and so tiny and frail. We can be male today, female tomorrow, female again, male again, or even feline, canine or whatever. He never fostered the intense (and ridiculous) identification with gender that somehow grew up in the later years of Iskcon.

Srila Prabhupada, being a great saintly personality, saw with “equal vision” as so stated in the Gita. Thus he gave equal love, concern, respect and often responsibilities to both his male and female disciples. Srila Prabhupada clearly saw the soul, and he based his dealings on that level. He wanted his female disciples protected, not exploited. And he wanted his male disciples to take up the yoke of responsibility he placed upon them.

All opinions aside, this is indeed Kali Yuga, and Kali’s world is replete with dozens of Gurus, Smurus, God-chasers, God-wannabes, and magicians posing as gurus. The fact that charlatans abound is certainly well publicized.

Even the high-end uptown swamis and gurus have run off with airline stewardesses and young female disciples. A short online search can produce numerous histories of such infamous gurus. It’s safe to say, “the water has been fouled by the few.”

Thus perhaps the main reason for the increasing clamor for female gurus is the widespread distrust of male power abuse, the patriarchal misuse of power that exists in the world today. After so much deception, power-mongering, and lechery, few spiritual aspirants feel safe in their choice of a male guru. This is across the board–not only in Iskcon, but in numerous other Vedantic societies, yoga margs, shamanic paths, etc.

Certainly, both within Iskcon and without, there are some very sincere and accomplished Godbrothers who are doing wonderful preaching work, and indeed sacrificing their lives to serve as guru to numerous disciples. I greatly admire those of my dedicated Godbrothers who travel continuously all over Eastern Europe, India, Asia, and elsewhere, preaching and leading wonderful kirtans wherever they go. They are truly living the sanyas dharma as taught by Srila Prabhupada. They travel continuously, sacrificing their time and energy, and often in spite of advanced age and ill health. They have no private life, or “down time.” This is praiseworthy, and not an easy path to follow. They are fulfilling the role of guru to the best of their ability.

It is undeniable, however, that in Iskcon, as elsewhere, we have seen our share of power politics and also sexual misconduct amongst gurus, GBC’s, and other leaders. So has the Catholic church. So also has the Protestant revivalist culture. And so have the various Yoga/Hindu/Buddhist traditions as well.

Perhaps it is for this reason that many sincere spiritual aspirants find it much easier to entrust their soul to an older woman who has been practicing years of sincere sadhana–(whatever sadhana: Yogic, Buddhist, Hindu, etc)–than to a male guru who may eventually jump into bed with an airline stewardess–or worse–one of his trusting young disciples. In Iskcon as well, older women are more likely to be stable and sense-controlled, and established in their bhakti due to years of humble practice. It is far more likely to see an old gray-haired 60+ year-old male going after a 20-something female than an older woman doing this. So the reason for the clamor is clear.

In fact, in today’s Western culture, often the very term “guru” is enough to bring up automatic associations with “danger” or “scandal.” Out of curiosity, I recently read a book by Dr. Mariana Caplan called “The Guru Question: The Perils and Rewards of Choosing a Spiritual Teacher.” In it she states, “I have spent time with gurus who are living proof that “guru” can be a four-letter word. Nobody has asked me to drink Cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, but I have been offered plenty of other substances. And most of the other types of crimes of power and passion one hears about in relation to purported gurus have been perpetrated upon me and people I know. After seventeen years of experience on four continents and ten years of research in the field, I am both personally and professionally all too familiar with the shocking abuses of power that have been committed in the name of spirituality.” She also notes that, “Within spiritual circles in the United States, the argument can be summed up as follows: the gurus came West in the sixties; we believed in them; we gave them our money, lives, and souls, and they betrayed us with scandals involving money, sex, and power.”

Another important factor is this: Nowadays, the youth in America, and most of the Western world, have grown up (mostly) fatherless. Naturally, they are more inclined to trust and respect and hear from the senior women in their lives. After all, it was their mothers who remained steadfast, often struggling to support the children, while their fathers were either completely absent from home, or worse. Thus many young people simply do not trust male personalities due to their many bad experiences, either at home, in Gurukul, or in public schools or churches. This is a fact of modern life.

This is one reason that it is very likely that lady gurus will flourish in future. Female gurus are already prominent in various other spiritual paths, both in the East and the West. Some say this is because males in modern society have not lived up to the standards of manhood as set forth in the Vedas–and even common practical decency. It is a Kali Yuga fact.

So perhaps we should look at all this from the young bhaktas’ point of view. If they grew up in Iskcon, it was the matajis who fed them, clothed them, and protected them, and the male devotees who beat them, verbally assaulted them, and even sexually abused them. In mainstream Western society, with its colossal divorce rate, it is the mothers who worked two jobs to feed the kids, send them to school, and counsel them, and who tried to protect them from taking wrong paths. More often than not, the fathers abandoned them, showed little signs of caring, paid little or no child support (unless forced to do so by the courts), and usually found a younger prettier wife as well. Realistically, how does this compare with the Vedic conception of “man’s duty and woman’s duty?”

So as a result of such upbringing, many young aspirants simply do not trust the male figure as a role model in Western society. He has lost his credibility.

In Dr. Caplan’s book, the author explores the horrors of trusting various gurus, and outlines the principle of “conscious discipleship.” Casually translated, this means, “educate yourself and understand the complexity of the student-teacher relationship, examine the teacher carefully, don’t be gullible, exercise spiritual discernment, and be very very cautious when choosing a guru.” Her own horrid experiences often echo ours within Iskcon. It shows there really is a problem, and we need to find a way to address it. We cannot be blind to the issues at hand.

We have to live in the times that we find ourselves placed, and do the best we can to spread Lord Chaitanya’s Sankirtan movement. We have to find a way to do this without getting too hung up or stuck in some temporary male/female, black/white, or green/pink identity. That is the crux of the matter.

So the real issue is this: can this concept of female gurus be embraced by our spiritual lineage, and ordained by our line of Acharyas coming from Brahma? That is the important question.

The following quotes from Srila Prabhupada’s letters and conversations seem to verify that it can indeed be supported by the Acharya.

“If a woman is perfect in Krsna consciousness … Just like Jahnava devi, Lord Nityananda’s wife, she was acarya. She was acarya. She was controlling the whole Vaisnava community…. It is not that woman cannot be acarya.” (Conversation 6/29/72)

Prof. O’Connell: Is it possible, Swamiji, for a woman to be a guru in the line of disciplic succession?

Prabhupada: Yes. Jahnava-devi was Nityananda’s wife. She became. If she is able to go to the highest perfection of life, why it is not possible to become guru? But, not so many. Actually one who has attained the perfection, she can become guru. But man or woman, unless one has attained the perfection…. Yei krsna-tattva-vetta sei guru haya. The qualification of guru is that he must be fully cognizant of the science of Krsna. Then he or she can become guru. Yei krsna-tattva-vetta, sei guru haya. In our material world is it any prohibition that woman cannot become professor? If she is qualified, she can become professor. What is the wrong there? She must be qualified. That is the position. So similarly, if the woman understands Krsna consciousness perfectly, she can become guru.” (Conversation 6/18/76)

In one of Srila Prabhupada’s letters to his disciple Hamsaduta in 1969, he states, “I want that all of my spiritual sons and daughters will inherit this title of Bhaktivedanta, so that the family transcendental diploma will continue through the generations. Those possessing the title of Bhaktivedanta will be allowed to initiate disciples. Maybe by 1975, all of my disciples will be allowed to initiate and increase the numbers of the generations.”

These statements seem to verify that female guruhood can indeed be supported by both the Acharya and the Disciplic Succession.

However, I think the problem here may be the difference between our definition of guru, and Srila Prabhupada’s definition of guru. Srila Prabhupada’s statements seem to center on the spiritual wealth of Krishna Consciousness that he wanted to “continue through the generations” and increase the numbers of the generations.”

Problems arise when our Iskcon definition of guru becomes more like “little kings” or “feudal lords” competing with one another for disciples, power, money, and fame. Srila Prabhupada’s definition of guru is clearly a spiritual one, one that focuses on teaching and inspiring spiritual aspirants along the path to Godhead.

Heralding an era of female gurus does seem to threaten some of the male disciples. It seems there may be some hesitancy on the part of insecure males due to their own feelings of inner worth, or feelings of insecurity regarding the superiority of their “maleness.” We hope it will be possible to get past this. The important thing is to live in the times that we find ourselves, and try to progress and promote Krishna consciousness however we can. That was always Srila Prabhupada’s perspective. He was always focused on getting the message of Lord Chaitanya out in the world, not on which person did it.

Here is one example of the times that we live in. One young devotee lady, second generation, Tulsi Gabbard, from Hawaii, was just recently elected to the US Congress in Washington D. C. President Obama endorsed and backed her campaign prior to the election. At her January inauguration, Tulsi will be sworn in on Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad Gita As It Is, Original Edition, as she publicly declares that she is a Hindu and a vegetarian. This is the kind of preaching work that will open up fields of interest all over the world–what to speak of in America. And from a spiritual perspective, just having people chanting the name “Tulsi” grants benefit. During the campaign, our highways were papered with signs and billboards bearing the words, VOTE TULSI.COM. This, I assure you, would delight Srila Prabhupada!

Folks, I think its time we move into the 21st century. As Srila Prabhupada once told an agitated brahmachary, if it bothers you to be around ladies, you should go to the forest!

So my overall opinion is this: female gurus are inevitable. It will happen sooner or later. It is already happening in other spiritual lines; it is only a matter of time before it happens in our line. Perhaps it is just another consideration of Kali Yuga, and just doesn’t line up with our Vedic ideals, but what does? Srila Prabhupada was far more concerned with spreading Krishna Consciousness than sticking to ancient traditions.

He saw the need of the times, and he stepped forward into the 21st century. He initiated his female disciples with Gayatri mantra, encouraged them to perform arotiks and Deity worship, and to manage temples when needed. He saw that girls are educated in the same ways as boys in the Western countries, and instead of trying to suppress that, he encouraged his female disciples to do whatever they excelled in–whether it was art, music, Deity worship, public relations, management, or whatever. It was much later, due to the anti-woman sentiment of a few agitated leaders, that Iskcon became so lop-sided and averse to the spiritual welfare of the women and children.

In 1968, Srila Prabhupada did in fact list two of his female disciples to serve on the original GBC (Yamuna devi, and myself, Govinda dasi) but the opposition by some of his senior men prevented this. (Too bad–it could have saved millions in lawsuits and bad PR from the child abuse cases.) Now, years later, we see that there is at least one senior woman disciple on the GBC, as Srila Prabhupada originally intended.

However, in this guruhood issue, I see the real danger is the dark horse called ambition. Srila Prabhupada repeatedly stressed that there is no place in spiritual life for personal ambition. So anyone, male or female, who decides to step in line for guruhood, should deeply question his or her inner motives. Is he or she inspired by a genuine desire to serve Srila Prabhupada, and to serve others, or is there some personal ambition lurking beneath the layers? Is he or she inspired by the desire for: Fame? Money? Adoration? Security? He or she must answer confidently, that he/she is not deceiving his/herself, but can actually uplift lost souls and place them at the lotus feet of the Lord. He or she must also be able take on the disciples’ past karmas, and purify them without losing his or her own purity. This is the real test. Not some “rubberstamp guru approval.” That hasn’t worked in the past, and it won’t work in the future.

I myself am very “old-school.” I still believe in the old-fashioned philosophy that Srila Prabhupada taught us, and that his Guru Maharaj taught him: That is: “Don’t anyone try to become guru prematurely, just go on with your service. Whoever is meant to become guru will come out automatically in time.” And that already is happening; many have come, and many have gone.

There are teachers, there are guides, and there are various types of gurus. There is a vast difference between such teachers, guides, and gurus–and the Acharya, like Srila Prabhupada. There is no harm in teaching and guiding others; but there can be great harm done if one accepts disciples prematurely, both to the “fallen guru” and to the disciples. This is the great danger.

If there is a need to fulfill, that is, people want diksha so they feel they “belong” to the “club” or the institution, we must be very clear on what type of guru is giving that kind of diksha. And by all means, we should not place so much importance on any Iskcon guru who seems to eclipse the importance of Srila Prabhupada. Srila Prabhupada is the Master Guru of us all. We are like small moons orbiting around the sun of Srila Prabhupada; he is giving us the spiritual light and we are reflecting that light into the world. We must always remember from where our light is coming, and pray to Krishna to always remain humble in his presence.

All this, and more, is why, my initial reaction remains, “Who, in their right mind, would want to take up the role of diksha guru?”