Reflecting on the meaning of “nirviśeṣa-śūnyavādi-pāścātya..”

Part of our ISKCON folklore is a story of early devotees wondering who were those māyāvādīs Śrīla Prabhupāda always rallied against – because no one knew any particular māyāvādī at the time, and then it hit them – they (we) are the māyāvādīs! Not by our professed ideology but by our attitudes and by the quality of our relationships, which were often very impersonal in nature. A lot of Bhāgavatam classes were spent on uncovering impersonalism in our lives afterwards. Otherwise a question arises – why would Śrīla Prabhupāda travel to the western countries to fight māyāvāda? All the māyāvādīs were back in India, poisoning Indian society from within, why go fight them in the West? Or we can equate “nirviśeṣa śūnyavādi” with western atheism but Srila Prabhupāda attacked atheism separately from attacking impersonalism. Or we can say that nirviśeṣa, śūnyavādi, and pālscātya deśa are three different, not necessary overlapping categories. There are so many ways we can understand Śrīla Prabhupāda’s praṇāma mantras. I want to offer another explanation of this mantra and demonstrate its ultimate consistency and truthfulness.

Cardinal directions, like the west, in Vedic science are deeply meaningful but that meaning is not directly obvious. Thankfully, in the 4th Canto of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam Nārada Muni tells a parable of King Purañjana mentioning how different bodily gates lead out in different directions. Similarly, Lord Caitanya told Sanātana Goswāmī a parable of an astrologer giving advice in which direction one must dig for which treasure (CC. Madhya 20). In the purports Śrīla Prabhupāda gives us enough clues to understand these Vedic directions. East is where the knowledge is (or treasure in Lord Caitanya’s parable) while West is the direction of impersonalism. South is for karma and North is for mystic yoga. We can treat Vedic culture as gradually evolving in a part of the already existing natural world and then dismiss everything as geographic coincidences, but as students of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam we’d better see the universe as manifesting **from** different grades of Vedic knowledge, planet by planet and continent by continent, beginning with Lord Brahmā’s efforts.

What makes western civilization remarkable is its success in science, success in providing a broad range of scientific theories to explain almost all observable phenomena and provide the society with benefits derived from that knowledge. In this sense science has become a shelter for modern civilization and has fully supplanted religion as the foundation of western society – it dictates morals, guides economics, and supplies daily necessities and all kinds of pleasures as well. It has fully become “dharma” in the sense of “that which sustains”. And it is not coincidental that western science is impersonal at its very core – as Vedic science predicts above – West and whatever grows in that direction is a place of impersonalism. Today this impersonal science strives to erase all traces of subjectivity (meaning personalism), and it seeks universal laws which apply in every context regardless of one’s personal perspective. All pre-western descriptions of nature were personalistic – everything in nature had souls, even trees, mountains and rivers. There were deities everywhere and they all needed to be propitiated through personal service and sacrifices. Historically, it was Christianity first that fought against this “paganism”, but then science put a solid, rational foundation under this drive and made all manifestations of personal subjectivity illegal.

By seeking universal laws which apply everywhere equally western science cemented itself as deeply impersonal because in the world governed by gods and spirits they all had their domains where they enforced their rules and so all laws were local. There was no universality before western science. Typically, a man can walk up to any mountain but no one can walk up to Lord Śiva’s Kailāsa where men are not allowed, for example. For his own mountain Lord Śiva has his own laws. The laws of nature for Rakṣas and Yakṣas are different from laws for humans – they can fly, change their appearance at will, and do all kinds of magic, but we cannot. Western science declares this impossible because all true laws must be universal and no personal domain can be an exception. Personal laws and personal domains are simply not allowed in western understanding of nature.

In this way western science is a consistent and determined implementation of impersonal view of the world devoid of God, and so is the entire western civilization that is built upon it. It is nirviśeṣa and pāścātya – impersonalist and western, just as praṇāma mantra says.

What it means for us is that we should be cognizant of this underlying impersonalism and learn to notice it in our own worldviews. We all subconsciously embrace existence of “objective reality”, for example, without giving much thought to what this “objectivity” really means in Vedic science. Reality does look objective to us, but we can also say that as humans we are part of the same domain and so we can only share our subjective experiences within that common domain. Agreeing with each other doesn’t make our observations objective and observed similarities do not make our reality  truly objective either, it just means that our personal perspectives are not that different from one another. Someone higher up the chain, like Manu, can change these perspectives for the entire humanity for thousands and millions of generations at once and so they will all agree on something different from what we agree upon now. And what to speak of Kṛṣṇa, who doesn’t play by the same rules at all. And then Bhāgavatam and Mahābhārata are full of descriptions of beings who do not live by our laws and so they experience the world in very different ways. In science these contradictory experiences are dismissed as mythology because objective reality is one and what is impossible for us should be impossible anywhere and for anyone. Even as devotees we don’t know yet how to properly deal with all these divergent personal realities. We have the same sādhana rules for all, for example, and we shudder at the thought that some devotees might progress by not attending maṇgala arati. We’d rather standardize everything we possibly can, which is the opposite of personalism, So, imposing same sādhana on everyone is impersonalism, but at the same time we realize that this standardization is absolutely required for the society to function. How to reconcile? How much impersonalism is permissible or necessary? Why? Should everything be open to personal views and interpretations or must be there ground rules for all? This requires a lot of consideration and deep understanding of hierarchies and our places on the tree of the universe and even on the tree of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s followers.

There’s yet another, deeper meaning to Vedic directions and it stems from the very duality of this world where what is indicated by “this” is not what is indicated by “that”, and so “this” and “that” cannot point to the same thing. When Lord Caitanya, unconstrained by this duality, tried to express Absolute Truth terms of this world He simply called it “acintya”. We have no reference here for the logic where “this” and “that” are one and the same and yet also different. We cannot understand it on the basis of our observations because difference between objects is fundamental to our perceptions and all our experiences. If something is white it can’t be black, for example, and there’s no logic that can argue that white is in black and black is in white. Even when we look at Chinese Yin-Yang symbol we see a circle of black in the white area, not that there’s literally black in white. In any case, the point is that to know something here we also need to know what it is not, know how “this” is not “that”, ie we need to know that crows are not white, for example – that’s one trait by which we can tell them from other birds.  Similarly, every object here has a use and to know what it’s for we also need to know how not to use it, and this is how directions are manifested from two pairs of opposites – from what things are and what they aren’t, and from how they can and cannot be used.

Proper definition of an object (or concept, or any idea), means first gaining knowledge of what it is, which is “East”. Proper use of the object manifests South. In the earlier mentioned scheme South was for performing karmic activities, which is what “proper use” means, too. Opposite the East is the knowledge of what the object is not, and opposite of South is the knowledge of how not to use it. Mystic yoga is about refraining from karmic activities and so designating North as the land of yoga is appropriate. Designating West as a direction where we say what things are not – neti-neti – is a signature of impersonalism, too. So the two schemes perfectly overlap here. Ideally, we take knowledge (“East”), examine it, and start peeling away false assumptions about it. In this way we refine our understanding of the idea and so “West” is necessary for complete knowledge, as well as “South” (proper use) and “North” (misuse). In this way we must complete the circle to attain full understanding, and this is where Śrīla Prabhupada’s arrival in the West makes perfect sense as well.

I think it’s obvious that development of western civilization is also a story of negations. They (we – I’m also a child of western thought) negated everything, starting maybe from rising against authority of the Pope, then we went against Biblical descriptions of the world altogether, then we fought to overthrow superstitions and dogmas, then we fought to overthrow kings and empires – our whole history is an endless fight against authorities. We always have something to negate. Whatever idea or concept comes to establish itself, in no time we find faults with it. In this way we, as westerners, are eternal revolutionaries. Even as devotees when we went to India people there immediately noticed that we were very eager to dismiss things and traditions that they held sacred. It’s in our western blood – we find impurities everywhere and we purge them. This approach was very unusual for the Indians of the “South” where they are more concerned with how people can derive benefits from whatever idea they come across rather than dismiss anything completely. Naturally, in their “southern” religion of Hinduism everything goes and everything has a place and value for someone and nothing is rejected altogether.

Another example of such nihilistic “westerness” is the life of a brāhmaṇa from the first chapter of the second part of Bṛhad Bhāgavatāmṛta. Somehow his family got a new idea of a good life and moved from Mathura to Assam in the East (direction of new values). He grew up there but lost his brahminical qualities. Then, in his dream, his worshipable deity gave him a mantra and by chanting it his heart gradually became purified. Under the influence of the mantra he lost interest in his old life and, appropriately, moved west. He first arrived at Ganga Sagara where he found people busy practicing karma kanda rituals. He was very impressed by their knowledge and organization. Everything looked very developed there, and so he tried to become like them, but under the influence of the mantra he still wasn’t satisfied so he moved farther west. He arrived in Varanasi and became fascinated by renunciates seeking liberation there. Still dissatisfied, he moved farther west to Prayag where he found people worshiping Lord Viṣṇu. The deity of Lord Mādhava, presiding over Prayāg-tīrtha, closely resembled the deity of brāhmaṇa’s mantra, but still He didn’t bring him satisfaction and the Lord Mādhava directed the brāhmaṇa farther west to Mathura. Maybe it’s a coincidence but it’s an uncanny one – constant dissatisfaction with the state of things constantly pushed him in a western direction. When he returned to Mathura, the original point of his journey, he met Gopa Kumāra who elevated his life and his spiritual practice to a qualitatively new level, thus completing the circle.

Śrīla Prabhupāda’s vision of a perfect candidate for receiving Krishna Consciousness was very simple: “Krsna consciousness is for those who have come to detest this material world.” (“Topmost Yoga System” Ch 3). That’s why his message was very welcome in the hippie communities in the US who, at the time, had come to the point of detesting prevailing materialistic culture. And yet it was simultaneously lost on those who went “North” and dedicated their lives to destructive practices of “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” which sprang from this defiance. Some of these people were reformed by Śrīla Prabhupāda but many could not be saved. His message also didn’t penetrate the ranks of those Americans who firmly believed in their way of life and didn’t see the need for any changes – the ideological “southerners”.

There is another point to the Vedic science of directions – it’s not just a circle but more of a spiral with high and low points on it, too. If East is a high starting point of knowledge (or sattva) then South is a descend into rajas, and West is tamas. If there’s any hope of saving the situation then the West is also a breaking point from where one can continue to a level down and accept outcomes of “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” as the new platform of lower grade East/sattva/knowledge for the next cycle, or western nihilism can give rise to uplifting practices which will elevate us to a platform of higher knowledge (which, in time, we will try to corrupt again). This is what Śrīla Prabhupāda did for his western disciples – he gave them knowledge and practices which appeared to the general society as opposites of their ideas of truth and karmic pursuits, but these practices were undoubtedly uplifting whereas those who didn’t take Prabhupada’s offer slid down into hellish outcomes of drug addiction.

As much as we glorify Śrīla Prabhupāda as a jagat-guru we have to also acknowledge the fact that it was the nihilistic west that was the most fertile soil for his preaching while karma admiring Indians didn’t see any value in it until we brought money and built very impressive temples there. We can also acknowledge the fact that Śrīla Prabhupāda didn’t leave us a lot of detailed information about what to do with our lives after he saved us. He wanted to institute varṇāśrama, true, but he also gave up on the idea of managing our marriages, seeing us as hopeless and unable to follow simple vows which felt natural to him. Without guidance, managing the Northern leg of our journey leading to the happy and prosperous self-sustaining society of the new “East” where we can raise a new, higher grade of vaiṣṇavas had become problematic and our devotees learned the skill on the fly. One example could be our struggle with gurukulas and government demands for state controlled curriculum, or establishing self-sustained farm communities. I think we all can acknowledge that today’s ISKCON doesn’t look exactly like it was dreamed of in the 70s. In other words, if we choose Śrīla Prabhupāda’s main accomplishments for his praṇāma mantras then we probably have to leave out establishment of daivi-varṇāśrama (new East) and the detailed science of material happiness and prosperity associated with karma yoga of the Vedic South.

Another troublesome legacy of our modern education is that we look on maps and directions from the top, with the map lying on the table in front of us, but in Vedic science this top-down perspective on the world might not even exist.  When devotees brought newly published volume of the Third Canto of Śrīmad Bhagavatam to Śrīla Prabhupāda he admired everything about it until he saw the back cover which displayed “from above” view of Lord Brahma on a lotus flower, and Lord Viṣṇu farther below. This is impossible – no one can observe Lord Viṣṇu from above, such position doesn’t exist. “Helicopter view”, Prabhupada called it. We can easily imagine it, though it’s not real, and we assume it’s always there by itself and we can place the Lord within it . Such understanding of the world is very very close to māyāvāda. In Vedic science, on the other hand, we are facing East, which is a way forward. South is on the right, North is on the left, and West is behind. Pāścāt is a word both for West and for “behind”, and Dakṣiṇa is similarly both for South and “right”. And, of course, it’s the demons who appear as the back of the universal form – our demoniac western civilization fits perfectly there. We will never see the Lord’s face from where we are. So, being in the West means not seeing the Lord, which means religion of  śūnyavāda – emptiness. We don’t need to be Buddhists for that, simply by being westerners we can develop nihilism just as well. Śrīla Prabhupāda then made us turn around and go towards the light of the East where we can finally find God.

Just a bit of information – historically, maps were usually drawn with the most important thing at the top so that maps reflected natural hierarchy. Chinese invented compass and their needles pointed south, but because the emperor lived in the north they drew their maps with emperor’s palace at the top. During Crusade times Europeans also drew Jerusalem – the east – at the top of their maps. It’s not clear why the tradition changed. Possibly because of the fixed position of the Pole Star around which everything rotates.

Mundane geography also fixes our directions – North is always North, South is South, but Vedic science doesn’t. Rather every society, every individual, and even every phenomenon goes through the cycle of East-South-West-North and each such cycle folds into a bigger cycle like days fold into weeks and weeks fold into months. This means that we can’t blindly repeat Śrīla Prabhupāda’s words everywhere and at all times and expect the same results. By the very nature of his message – if our praṇāma mantras are right about him – it is most potent when addressing those in the “western” phase of their lives. If we approach a millennial sitting through the night in line for the next release of a smartphone so he would be the first one to buy it – he won’t listen to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s words because he is still in the “south”, still enchanted by material prospects. If we approach that same person after he realized that promises made by the society when he was growing up will never come true and the society itself is not what it was pretending to be, he will probably be more receptive to the same message because that would be the western point of his personal cycle. If we are too late and this person takes to implementing whatever decisions he made on the basis of his disappointment, usually in the form of drug abuse and other immoral activities, then his descent would be very hard to reverse.

This model works on entire countries as well. In the 19th century westerners invented a social system opposing to all traditionally held beliefs – godless and classless communism. Then Russians, who live in the cold North, actually tried to implement it via unheard of practices of communal farming and even, at some point, communal wives. That’s a bigger picture, bigger circle. When Śrīla Prabhupāda visited Moscow Russians were still going through the “south” leg of their internal circle, fully believing that their new philosophy worked even if in the big picture it was doomed from the start. Śrīla Prabhupāda planted the seed there but nothing really happened until Russians turned back on their communist dreams – meaning they turned west in their own relative positioning and so became very receptive to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s message. Or we could look at Nordic countries in Europe which are now busy implementing bizarre ideas about gender and sexuality born out of western rejection of traditional values of marriage and gender roles. They happen to lead the world to the global North and for those who embrace these ideas our message might be too late, just like even Śrīla Prabhupāda himself couldn’t save everyone from clutches of LSD and marijuana.

So, in order to preach effectively we either need to find the “western” point in that person’s life or wait until he gets there, which doesn’t happen very often. Good news is that we, as a society, have by now developed solutions attractive for happiness seeking “southerners” – just look at how popular our messages about yoga and clever ways of living have become in India and elsewhere. These messages do not sit well with those devotees who reject “South” wholesale and this disagreement manifests as regrettable “liberal vs conservative” divide. We also have enough experience to help those struggling with their addictions and other people set on self-destructive ways of the “North”. Our Prison Ministry is an inspiring example in this area. There are also attempts to accommodate homosexuals in our movement, no doubt highly controversial. In this way we are becoming a truly universal movement covering all four directions, but our internal differences between South, North, and our original West are not recognized and we sometimes want to put everyone in the same slot, branding them as deviants if they refuse to comply.

We can say that Śrīla Prabhupāda is eternally present but we also have to acknowledge that he gave us direct guidance fifty years ago and we are not receiving it now. In this way his appearance was for the purpose of nirviśeṣa-śūnyavādi-pāścātya-deśa-tāriṇe and not so much for maintaining and developing us beyond the stage of initial deliverance, not for “southern” or “northern” stages of our lives. This means that as we want to continue our preaching mission in the spirit of Śrīla Prabhupāda we need to see where his words and methods suit the best – at the stage of the “West”, at the stage of nihilism, defiance, and disappointment in traditional values. We also need to recognize that in other places we need to derive instructions indirectly following Śrīla Prabhupāda’s spirit, his mood, his books and so on. There will be disagreements on how to do that but if we recognize that they are born out of necessity of adapting to “southern” or “northern” aspirations we might be more accommodating of disagreeing views. Our devotees are not always in the “western” stage of their lives either. Some want prosperity, some want to defy newly accepted norms of behavior and, consequently, their understanding will be different. It would be useless to argue about it because we are not “on the same page” to begin with. We should also recognize that we all have been there, that everyone goes through the same cycle and staying in one place is simply impossible, neither individually nor as a society – Vedic universe is not a static object, it always goes forward, though in circles.

It’s not the first time when the appeal to the “South” has been made in our history – Lord Caitanya Himself told Lord Nityānanda, lifelong renunciate avadhūta, to marry and settle down. As we sing during Gaura-aratik – dakhiṇe nitāi-cāńd – on His right side, ie South, is the moonlike Lord Nityānanda. I’m sure there were devotees at the time who thought it was a crazy idea and a gross deviation – we know from our literature that Lord Nityananda had quite a few detractors, but the cycle cannot be stopped, that’s how the universe moves forward. The best we can do is to find Śrīla Prabhupāda’s place in it and try to figure out how we can carry his legacy forward turn after turn, and also to learn to see his legacy in the actions of devotees we happen to disagree with. The worst we can do is to mislabel everything and forcefully apply some local rules and conclusions everywhere without any consideration. Śrīla Prabhupāda taught us better.

PS. The idea of Vedic directions step by step manifesting actual world is taken from a book Cosmic Theogony by Ṛṣirāja Prabhu/Ashish Dalela. There are lots of similar topics there, describing various manifestations of phenomenal world from fundamental philosophy of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam.

On defense of FDG resolution

A couple of days ago one Russian devotee who is a “GBC Deputy”, which means he serves in some sort of an advisory role, gave a long talk answering various concerns regarding recent GBC resolution authorizing Female Diksha Gurus. He was present during that meeting, translating for a Russian GBC member, and, incidentally, he gives vote tally as 16+9+4, meaning there were almost twice as many “yes” votes as there were “nos”. Anyway, this devotee has presented the most comprehensive explanation for this resolution so far. Most likely his arguments will be included in the promised “milestones leading to this decision”. Still, it’s not an official position so whatever deficiencies are there in his talk, they might not be present in actual GBC explanations.

The arguments below are not meant for GBC bashing, they are meant for deeper understanding of the issue. They are not meant as a call to action and I do not propose any alternatives. It’s meant for sambandha, not for abhidheya, nor for prayojana. In the talk this devotee also warned about this from the start – those who are looking merely for more reasons to “defeat GBC” should skip it altogether.

I’m not going to comment on this talk minute by minute either but start with what I think is the most important point. By important I mean the point which allows us to understand not only GBC position but to reconcile it with the position of FDG opponents – because they must have forked at some point before which there was unity, and I think I found it. In the video it’s about 29:30 minute mark and it’s the definition of diksha itself. It relies on CC Adi 1.35 and CC Antya 4.192

In short, it means that a devotee meets many siksha gurus and, after carefully listening to them, selects one guru who speaks to his heart and in whose words he can see Krishna. By speaking sabda-brahman this one special guru reveals Krishna himself, and so a devotee surrenders to him completely, seeing him as no different from God. This act not only cements their existing relationships, where all the doubts of mundanity are finally removed, but also signifies the beginning of the new stage where disciple’s body, mind, and soul belong to his guru – atma-samarpanam.

When this happens I don’t think any arguments will matter at all – this kind of revelation is self-evident, and I don’t think any FDG opponent will object here. If we look at it in light of Bharadvaja Samhita, then there’s a concluding text (1.44) in a series related to FDG and it says that those who are pratyakṣitātma-nāthānāṁ are not subjected to regulations covering women, shudras, etc. The exact meaning of pratyakṣitātma-nāthānāṁ is disputable, but everyone agrees it has something to do with direct perception of the Absolute. The diksha definition of GBC goes even further than that – not only the guru has this perception but at the moment of diksha this direct perception develops in the heart of the disciple, too. In other words, it totally satisfies Bharadvaja Samhita requirements.

The opponents, however, do not mean this kind of diksha in their arguments, and I have serious questions whether our actual ISKCON initiation practices reach that lofty goal either. In the zonal acharya days one could be initiated by anyone, I mean anyone who is put in charge of your geographical location, and it was all the same – all the gurus preached the same things, gave the same lectures, and presented Srila Prabhupada in one unified voice. There was nothing magic happening during those initiations either, no actual revelation of the full glory of the holy name. For this reason our whole guru system is often criticized like, for example, in this Aindra’s video. His presentation is a bit unusual, but I don’t know who can disagree with his argument that unless one has the necessary purity in his bhajan there’s no question of giving a pure name to a disciple, and if one has this purity then what does it matter if he is in a male or a female body? In other words, by arguing about bodily differences we miss the most important thing – purity of the shuddha nam. If one doesn’t have it, it can’t be fixed by passing resolutions. And, conversely, when it’s present no resolution can stop it either.

In recent years, maybe decades even, there have appeared voices nudging us to re-calibrate our diksha vs siksha preferences. The society grows, gurus are few and far in between, all the good ones have thousands of disciples already, and there’s no question for a new initiate to develop any kind of personal relationships with any of them to make an informed choice, and there’s no hope of developing such relationships after initiation either. Every guru can give a solid class, with all the quotes and dramatic pauses in all the right places. Quite often they give the same class in different temples and polish it to perfection – what can the prospective disciple learn from it? Does his guru have any character faults? How does he deal with those? How does he deal with anger? How does he deal with upsets and inconveniences? All you have is these classes which by now the guru can give in his sleep, if it comes to that.  So, there’s a push to recognize local siksha gurus, to recognize devotees who actually guide people in their spiritual life day in and day out, helping them deal with their problems, giving them little boosts of inspiration, sheltering and protecting them from troubles – all the things necessary to nurture someone’s tender creeper of devotion. Alternatively,  more devotees can be allowed to give diksha, considering that nothing magical is expected to happen anyway. But here’s the problem, though – if there’s no actual revelation of the holy name in the heart of the disciple at the moment of diksha, then GBC selected definition does not apply to our everyday practices.

That’s where Bharadvaja Samhita’s warning about not taking diksha from women, shudras, fallen persons etc fits very nicely – if we make diksha an institutional formality, then it’s a different kind of initiation and it’s subject to a different set of rules. In Caitanya Caritamrita Srila Prabhupada describes maybe half a dozen different “initiations”. Look through all the search results here. Sometimes Srila Prabhupada talks about two different kinds of initiations even in the same purport. Sometimes he says that for chanting the pure name initiation is not required at all. In this case it still means someone should give you the holy name first, which is a kind of initiation, but what is not required is a pancaratrika process of getting a new name and a brahman thread etc.

Having spent a bit of time on thinking in terms of Sankhya, I think we are making a mistake of not recognizing the distinctions between different kinds of diksha, and then not understanding of how they all fit together – which are more important, which are less, and then we make a mistake of not recognizing which kind of diksha is applicable to which situation or which Prabhupada quote to use where.

This is all there really is to it at the moment – it’s the source of all our disagreements. The kind of diksha GBC is talking about is appropriate for Bhagavata parampara, but they want to institutionalize it for diksha parampara. Both are required, but requirements are not the same. One is wholly spiritual in nature, the other one is social. Just like in Vedic or Hindu society – everyone should get diksha, everyone should get upanayana when the age comes, there’s social pressure to be initiated, too, and one does not require supergurus for that kind of initiation. The fact that the resolution put in social requirements for FDG – minimum age limit and family/temple protection, is evidence that here we are talking about social function which depends on social conditions. Bhagavata parampara diksha, on the other hand, does not depend on any conditions, including gender, and it does not require any change in social status. No need change of names, no big temple yajnas, nothing. In some cases it could even fall under Hari Bhakti Vilasa’s prescription to hide one’s ishta devata, one’s guru, and one’s mantra. If we try to mix the two different kinds together we are bound to run into all kinds of problems.

Back to the talk – this is one of my big concerns with it – they read into quotes what is in their heads already. Just take the first quote in GBC resolution, from this Vyasa Puja address, second paragraph from the bottom. Yes, it does say “men and women” and “become spiritual master”, but “become spiritual master” was repeated ten times in that class and Srila Prabhupada gave many many examples of what he meant by it and none of them had anything to do with the right to initiate.

Devotee giving the talk accused the opponents of relying on “Yes, Prabhupada said that, but what he actually meant was…” argument. Well, I don’t know about opponents, but this is an example of Srila Prabhupada asking us to humbly approach people, praise them, and then beg them to forget everything they know and take instructions of Lord Caitanya instead. That’s how we should “become spiritual master” and that’s what “follow the principle” refers to in GBC quote, but then the resolution defender says that what Prabhupada actually meant is gender parity in giving initiations. Really?

Or take the famous “Those possessing the title of Bhaktivedanta will be allowed to initiate disciples” from this letter to Hansadutta. The bulk of that paragraph is about examinations, books studies, titles awarded and so on, but from one sentence which wouldn’t be noticed if it was missing, we conclude that it set Prabhupada’s vision for gender equality in giving diksha. It has never been repeated again and I suspect no one knew of this vision until many years after Srila Prabhupada’s departure when it was included in Vedabase Folio. And so it becomes the case of “in the letter Srila Prabhupada talked about exams, but what he actually meant was…”

Or take the second quote in GBC resolution, duly mentioned in the talk, too: “The word guru is equally applicable to the vartma-pradarśaka-guru, śikṣā-guru and dīkṣā-guru.” It’s from the purport to the kiba vipra kiba ‘nyasi verse where guru means a person who knows science of Krishna. Yes, this person can perform the role of all three of these kinds of guru, “but what Prabhupada actually meant was that vartma-pradarśaka-guru can give diksha, too.” No, it doesn’t mean that at all. Bilvanmangala Thakur’s vartma-pradarśaka-guru was a prostitute, and just because some “working girl” can give you directions to the temple it doesn’t make her potential diksha guru as well.

Even more worrying is the general understanding expressed over and over again – Srila Prabhupada always wished that his female disciples were initiating people on par with men. Over the course of my life I’ve spent some time reading Srila Prabhupada’s books, I’ve listened to his lectures, I’ve read his letters, I’ve read his biographies, I’ve listened to people telling stories about their time with him, but I’ve never heard any indication that he meant gender parity in giving diksha. I might be wrong, of course, but when they say his every quote proves exactly that and anyone who disagrees actually disagrees with Prabhupada I don’t know how to accept this argument. The fact remains that not a single time he said anything about women devotees giving diksha on par with men. Never. And yet we are told “but what he actually meant is exactly that”. I want to understand this logic, but so far it escapes me. I mean I can’t find a rational explanation behind it. I have no problem imagining an explanation where devotees get carried away and become blinded, but I don’t want to think that about vaishnavas.

Accusing the opposition of applying this argument doesn’t seem to be fair, especially when you yourself indulge plenty.

Then there’s an objection to characterizing FDG agenda as being influenced by feminism and to using that word itself when addressing pro-FDG devotees. Okay, maybe it’s better to refrain from using such labels, and maybe there’s no such thing as “feminist lobby”, but let’s not pretend that feminism has no influence on how devotees think about FDG issue whatsoever. As I mentioned, when we start treating diksha as a social formality which does not necessarily require revealing Krishna in one’s heart, the opposition has the right to say that this is not about spiritual equality anymore, but about social equality between sexes, ie feminism.

There’s a She Can Become Guru video where many devotees and scholars present many arguments for FDG, and equality between genders is one recurring theme there. It literally starts with words “The crown jewel of discrimination against women in ISKCON is the refusal of the GBC to allow them to initiate disciples” – how’s that not feminism? Why is it “discrimination against” instead of plain discrimination based on qualities, shastra etc? That first speech ends with saying that there’s no doubt inequality in having gurus turns people off our organization. How’s that not a pressure from people desiring gender equality, ie feminists? Then there’s one young woman who is ashamed to tell her friends that in her religion there are no women gurus. Where does this shame come from if not from orienting oneself relative to feminist values?

One could say “it’s just one video”, but it has roughly five times more views than the most popular “controversial” videos by Bhakti Vikasa Swami and eight times more views than FDG resolution posted on dandavats. Therefore I can’t accept the argument that there’s no feminist influence on these issues in our society. Maybe not among GBC members themselves and not in their meetings, but it is definitely felt everywhere else.

Let’s not forget that Srila Prabhupada’s concessions to his female disciples concerning second initiations, brahmacharini ashrams etc was solely due to prevailing social conditions at the time, and those conditions were dictated by feminist norms taking over American society. It’s not that he wanted to introduce those in his League of Devotees in Jhansi. Our devotee girls were born into a feminist society and absorbed its values when growing up. In other often quoted purport he writes: “…one cannot suddenly change a community’s social customs”, which means the pressure to deal with feminism was felt even by him. But now we say we are immune to it while there are often repeated calls to stay in tune with modern times or risk becoming irrelevant. Doesn’t compute. “I’m not a feminist, I just want gender parity and justice for women’s suffering.”

In the talk that devotee said that there’s no way Srila Prabhupada could have been swayed by feminism, that all the revolutionary changes he introduced, sending his unmarried female disciples to solicit donations or sell books, could not have been made under pressure from his equality seeking disciples. But how to explain Mother Govinda’s account of the first ever brahmana initiation when she sulked and pouted and refused to attend because girls were not included, and how Srila Prabhupada eventually agreed to hold a second initiation for the girls the next day? That’s ISKCON classic and an example of women devotees strong-arming Prabhupada, how can we deny it happened? Or how to explain an episode told by Prabhupada’s servant, I don’t remember if it was Srutakirti or Nanda Kumar, but one devotee asked Srila Prabhupada for permission to divorce his wife and it was granted! The servant later asked Srila Prabhupada why he went against his usual instructions against it. “He would have divorced with or without my permission, but now at least he is not guilty of disobeying guru’s order,” Prabhupada replied. So I don’t buy the argument that Srila Prabhupada was completely immune to our requests for social liberties and that he meant all the revolutionary changes right from the start. These objections don’t matter in the big picture of FDG discussion, but I thought these were unacceptable arguments in defense of GBC decision.

Back to the main topic – I’m really alarmed how so many devotees read diksha gender parity into his quotes. As I already said, not once he mentioned it explicitly whereas he made countless other statements regarding duties of women or treating guru as male by default. To me this interpretation of Prabhupada’s words looks like an invention, and while pro-FDG devotees do not treat it as such, the speaker quickly ran into a problem here – because he discovered that Srila Prabhupada didn’t leave us any language to describe these female guru related terms. “Female guru” by itself is nonsense – the word “guru” is masculine gender and feminine form should be “gurvi”, with long “i” at the end. Good luck finding Srila Prabhupada or anyone else using this word in our tradition. Gurudevi, anyone? Is it grammatically correct? Then the speaker turned to fellow Gaudiya Vaishnavas where female gurus were very common in at least some lineages, and said that there they were addressed as Thakurani. Or Goswamini… And I think that was the point where he realized he better stop because this takes us into caste goswami practices which Srila Prabhupada and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati before him opposed without any reservations.

About inventions – once you invent something you will find there are faults in it which need to be fixed and so you have to invent a patch, which will create more problems in turn – and that’s how the living entity gets entangled in the chain of actions and reactions. It wasn’t specified what weakness was found there in FDG, but I suspect something was felt so that additional constraints where introduced – minimum age of 55 and family protection. It wasn’t spelled out, and the devotee presenting it avoided the topic, as a brahmachari should, but are we talking about female hormonal levels here? Are we talking about “don’t worry about her, she’s just on her period”? It’s an important consideration, but since when it had to be factored when choosing a guru? Especially according to the earlier given definition. The guru should be free from all these things, otherwise there’s no question of possessing the pure name, nor of possessing science of Krishna, which had to be realized. Same argument goes for requirement of family protection. The guru should be niskincanasya and he should depend solely on Krishna, not on the mercy of a son-in-law or something. To be fair, the resolution mentions protection of vaishnava sanga, too, and the speaker mentioned that even male gurus depend on such protection, but if we compare it to a stable family situation then it’s not the same thing. We should depend on mercy, not on the accommodations for material bodies. Once again, there’s a mix of purely spiritual and social functions here. Not to mention that Srila Prabhupada wouldn’t qualify himself. Nor, if we are looking at FDG precedents, Gangamata Goswamini, who left protection of her family very early in her life.

We have plenty examples of devotees who were sent out to preach without any material support whatsoever, to foreign and sometimes dangerous countries, and later on many of them became gurus in our society. It’s possible, it was a expected in our early history, and it’s a requirement stated many many times in shastra. But now we have to select gurus from among the materially well-off devotees? Where does this come from, spiritually speaking? Is it defensible in any way? I’d say – yes, if we treat diksha as a social function under rules of varnashrama where everybody had to get it when they reach a certain age.

There’s another accusation leveled against anti-FDG arguments – that they don’t rely on Srila Prabhupada for their support. Not true. Take the book “Masters and Mothers” by Bhakti Vikasa Swami which is based entirely on Srila Prabhupada’s quotes and which had to be unbanned partly for this reason – it was like banning Srila Prabhupada himself. A lot of anti-FDG arguments can be sourced from there. Statements about women’s duties are plentiful in Srila Prabhupada’s works, too, and so are statements implying that gurus are male, like in “second birth is made possible by the spiritual father” in SB 4.12.48 or “Under the guidance of the spiritual master, the spiritual father, one can return home, back to Godhead” in SB 6.16.6. Or this passage from a lecture in 1968:

    But those who are twice-born… That means once born by the father and mother, and the second birth is the spiritual father and Vedic knowledge. Once born by this material bodily father and mother, and the second birth is Vedic knowledge, the mother, and the spiritual master, the father. So that is second birth.

Incidentally, this [public] lecture was given just a couple of months before that [private] letter to Hansadutta, which FDG proponents take as a statement of Prabhupada’s actual intentions.

Of course there’s only one statement explicitly concerning female qualifications for giving diksha, too – that of “Suniti, being a woman”, but the speaker didn’t have time to address it as promised. I wonder how it will be reconciled in the promised GBC paper. Even when the opponents cite from Manu Samhita they do so on the strength of Srila Prabhupada’s numerous references to it and his instructions to treat it as a law book on dharma. Anyway, I find this argument, that opponents don’t rely on Prabhupada, to be unacceptable, too. It doesn’t meant that in my opinion the victory should go to anti-FDG devotees, but it’s not a fair characterization of their position and I expected better.

There was another argument from tradition – the lineage of Haridas Shastri, who was called the greatest Gaudiya scholar of the 20th century. I hope no one will dispute that, but he appeared in the line from Gadadhara Pandit where, according to him, ALL initiations were done by women. He himself didn’t get one from his mother because she passed away before he came of age. Once again, Srila Prabhupada never said anything good about those caste goswami practices. In 2013 SAC issued a paper where they presented a count of numerous female gurus in half a dozen lineages they examined. I can’t repeat their research, but in the line of Bhaktivinoda Thakura there appears a string of three female gurus and what I do know is that the last one of them gave diksha to her son, who then gave diksha to Vipina Bihari Goswami, who gave diksha to Bhaktivinoda Thakur. I suspect that all three of these female gurus where simply mothers and daughters. I heard that this count of female gurus didn’t factor in the resolution, but I think it should have – because it establishes not only the precedent, but also consequences of having FDG. One important result being that no one remembers they existed, so why bother again? Srila Sridhar Swami knew about them and mentioned their example in “Dead Mantra” chapter of his book on guru tattva. Should we be impressed by this historic precedent? I don’t think so.

Speaking of 2013 SAC paper. The speaker mentioned it as acceptable evidence and he also mentioned Mukunda Datta Prabhu as a trusted devotee who worked on this research, but Mukunda Datta resigned from working on that paper, very tactfully and without assigning any blame, but he made it clear that, in plain words, the outcome of that research had been fixed beforehand and no one was really interested in what he had to contribute. The paper itself is not listed on the official GBC website, but, apparently, its arguments live on, though they shouldn’t. Again, I expected better.

Then there was treatment of Bharadvaja Samhita. First time it was dismissed as “never heard before” but towards the end of the talk the speaker explained why they didn’t accept arguments against FDG based on it. There was some medieval commentator on it, Saryu Prasad Mishra, and on the crucial verse regarding women there he said that the same conditions should be applied to brahmanas as well. It would take me too much time to clarify this issue, but it was something like “self-realized person is not constrained by considerations of birth”, which leaves a kind of loophole for women to become gurus, and the commentator added “brahmanas should be self-realized as well”. This has been discussed a while ago already, this is all that I remember, sorry. I thought it was a misinterpretation on the part of GBC Sanskrit scholar who discovered it – the commentator’s statement was meant to stress the importance of self-realization, not to rewrite the slokas themselves. It’s a noble sentiment glorifying the ideal, but not an actual requirement stated in the text.

In another verse Bharadvaja Samhita says that one should not choose a guru who has more material attachments than oneself – meaning that total and absolute purity was not expected and deficiencies in prospective guru’s realizations had to be considered as well. An aspiring disciple cannot see absolute purity anyway, he can only conclude that he sees something “better than myself”.

In any case, I don’t think Bharadvaja Samhita was given a fair hearing. First of all, half of the anti-FDG presentation based on it was about general description of diksha and about proving that our process, given to us by Srila Prabhupada, complies with all the essential principles of it. Secondly, it demonstrates a clear connection between demands of purity and resulting rituals. It’s not a set of mindless commands like “wave the lamp three times”. It bridges the gap between “Bhagavat diksha” and “Pancaratrica diksha” and demonstrates how the principles of the first manifests as rituals of the second. I also know of Sanat Kumara Samhita, also part of Narada Pandaratra, which does the same thing but doesn’t mention women. In other words, by carefully studying these texts we can learn how Bhagavat and Diksha paramparas are but two different aspects of the same reality. This should help us figure out their commonalities, special features, relevant applications and so on. Earlier I mentioned this difference already, and studying Pancaratra texts should help us to learn about their commonalities as well. It’s sad that this was given a miss.

To sum it all up – there’s nothing wrong with FDG when we go by the given definition of diksha, but I’m afraid we are trying to apply it in the wrong place – as a societal function governed by an institution with somewhat different goals in mind. To solve this problem we should study the shades of meaning of diksha first and then proceed on the basis of that. I can’t do it in this article, sorry, but I think I do get the gist of it. I also don’t think that the speaker was entirely honest or maybe not knowledgeable enough, which is a milder accusation, when describing the process and motivations behind this decision. I think it’s far better to deal with feminists influences in our common psyche than deny that they even exist. I also don’t want to see lumping pro-FDG devotees with feminists and gays, and with characterization of anti-FDG devotees as narrow-minded fools and wife beaters I heard elsewhere. I’m actually against this dual vision altogether. I believe it should disappear once we honestly focus our attention on Srila Prabhupada’s instruction and then another type of vision, one that of harmony in diversity, will take over our consciousness.

PS. I apologize for not using diacritic marks consistently for transcription of Sanskrit words.