by Sudharma Dasi
Presented to the GBC Body in Mayapur, 2000
To understand the seriousness of a disease it is important to recognise its symptoms. Otherwise, by minimising or ignoring the symptoms, the body may be invaded by a terrible, even fatal, illness.
During the following testimonials, we ask that you keep an open mind, attentive ear, and most importantly, a non-prejudiced heart. These histories are important because they exemplify the severity of disregard for women in our society during the middle to late 1970s. At this time, as documented in Jyotirmayi’s paper,1 many women were relieved of their services, had to stand in the back of the temple rooms during aratis and were sent out of the temple rooms for japa. There was even talk of asking all the women to leave the temples, and moving to Australia.
In total, there were at least five women’s parties operating just before Srila Prabhupada’s disappearance. Each party had approximately twenty-five or more members. More than sixty women were asked to serve on Jiva’s party. Of these, at least twenty were approached by Jiva for illicit sex. Five of these women were ‘legally’ married to Jiva. There have been reports of at least three abortions.
These women had little or no shelter because the women’s parties were apparently supported by both temple leaders and Governing Body Commissioners. When women went to temple authorities they were sent back to the party where they were publicly admonished and punished. Three GBCs were sent to investigate Jiva’s party more than a year before its final demise but no action was taken, perhaps because the cash collections were very high.
Many of you have probably wondered why we felt it was so important to establish the Women’s Ministry. Perhaps I can shed some light on this by sharing a few personal experiences and thoughts. Perhaps also, through my testimony and what you have heard from my Godsisters, you will understand that this is not feminism, but rather a sincere attempt to create an environment conducive to devotional service for Vaisnavis. I hope that you will also recognise that the seeds of injustice towards, and prejudice against, women still bear fruit today.
Within two weeks of my joining the Hare Krsna movement, Jiva’s party was formed. I became one of its initial three members and remained a member from the day it was formed until the day it ended. By Krsna’s grace and kindness, I was naïve and thus unaware of Jiva’s sexual intimations towards me or my Godsisters. Looking back, the significance of many experiences have become apparent and are shocking, but worse was bearing witness to the suffering of my devoted Godsisters. Even though unaware of the details, the pain was evident, immeasurable and unbearable to watch. Clearly, these experiences reflected a perversion of the edicts of protection for women.
After Jiva’s party broke apart, I was given the opportunity to increase my preaching role. Thus I moved overseas and began preaching in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore. By Krsna’s mercy, despite many difficulties, I was able to meet dignitaries and hold large preaching engagements as I travelled alone, or with a small team of brahmacarinis,from town to town.
At one point, I and four other ladies maintained a centre in Bagio, Philippines, which prospered until we were told to leave. Next, through our own efforts, we were able to open a beautiful restaurant in Manila. When the restaurant became successful, I was told it was now time to put someone serious in charge; that a woman’s nature did not allow her to bear the managerial responsibility of such a project. Unfortunately, the restaurant closed within weeks of my departure.
After a pilgrimage to Vrndavana I returned to the USA. Because I was recovering from malaria, I was not able to go out and collect, so I was given a van and a younger bramacarini, and told to go out and do something. Again through Krsna’s grace, we were able in one month to sell many books, including two full sets of Srimad-Bhagavatam and a complete set ofSri Caitanya-caritamrta. We had made six new devotees and were offered the opportunity for radio and television spots, as well as a gift of 100 acres of land. Upon returning to the Portland temple happy and exuberant, I was physically assaulted by the Temple President (who had warmly received us only a few weeks earlier) and told to never come back. After returning to my home centre, I was told not to mention a word of my preaching programme to anyone, or I would be asked to leave the temple.
I do not know if the opposition to my efforts was due to a fear of losing collectors – who may prefer to preach – or to being a successful woman preacher, or both. I can only tell you that these were the most empowered days of my Krsna consciousness, and that every night I went to sleep with a smile on my face; every day having had a mystical experience in preaching.
In New Vrindaban, I was able to open a bookstore in the basement of the Palace of Gold. From there, with very little support from the management, and with my young baby girl in tow, by Srila Prabhupada’s mercy I was able to distribute a sizeable quantity of Srila Prabhupada’s books. This effort was easy because of the grandeur of the Palace and the sincerity of the devotees. Unfortunately, like so many previous efforts, it was not to last. I had just completed a Labor Day weekend of book sales that totalled $10,000 when I was once again informed that it was now time to bring in a more qualified individual. I will not dwell here on the demoralising manner in which the transition took place, but I will say that after my departure from the New Vrindaban book store, the sales immediately decreased to less than a tenth of what they had been when it was under my care.
More detrimental to me than the ill fate of being on a women’s party was my arranged marriage. It was determined that the solution to the numerous fall-downs of New Vrindaban’s residing spiritual leader would be to give many of the men sannyasa and to marry off all of the women. Upon hearing of this decision, I approached one of the leading household couples in our community to inquire about one Godbrother I thought might be interested in marrying me. Unfortunately he was one of the candidates for sannyasa and thus I was kicked out of the asrama and forced to live outside, alone in thesankirtana van.
After returning to the asrama, it became apparent that I was earmarked to marry a man of very low character. Understanding the intention, I began fasting and praying to the Lord for understanding. After several days, I had no answer, so I also stopped drinking water. After four days of not drinking water and not eating, I received a phone call. ‘Please break your fast, I will not force you to do anything against your will.’ You can imagine my surprise and dismay when less then two weeks later, my marriage to this very same man was unexpectedly announced at guru-puja.
I was tired and weak from the fast and had no fight left in me. I felt that for some unknown reason, Krsna wanted me to surrender. Thus, after years of ardent service and unflinching dedication to the regulative principles, book distribution and preaching, I found myself married to a low-class, disturbed individual who smoked, drank, stayed out nights roaming the streets of the gay sections of San Francisco, regularly forced himself upon me sexually, beat me and tore up everything I owned. He even gave me a disease that is a known link to cervical cancer, a disease for which I have recently undergone extensive surgery in what then appeared to be a life-threatening circumstance.
Finally, I moved to Philadelphia, were I was blessed with mature and rational Krsna conscious association. Our Temple President never infringed on my devotional service, in fact he encouraged me and provided facility in numerous ways.
More importantly, for the first time in my Krsna consciousness, I had the association of my older Godsisters: Vaisnavis who knew Srila Prabhupada, who had travelled with him and been given personal instruction. I felt a sense of belonging. These ladies endeared themselves to me, reinstated my trust in Srila Prabhupada’s movement and reinvigorated my heart. I was indebted to them in the deepest sense possible. I came to understand that the unpleasant experiences of my past were not isolated incidents. In fact, a seeming majority of my Godsisters had undergone similar experiences, and as I listened I found each story more unbelievable than the last. It was at this time that I resolved to do everything I could to help my Godsisters, whatever the cost.
The stories I’ve mentioned represent a minute segment of the misfortune I and others experienced. If you believe these are tales of ISKCON’s distant past, my present service to the Women’s Ministry has taught me otherwise.
One vivid and unforgettable impression I have received while in the service of Women’s Minister came from a note scrawled at the end of a confidential survey which read, ‘in dedication to … Dasi, a dear friend who has been killed at the hands of her husband’. I have also been told several heartbreaking stories of forced marriages that resulted in molestation and physical and sexual assault of wives and children.
We sit before you now, a ragtag remnant of Srila Prabhupada’s female disciple army. Each one of us had considerable reservations about making this journey and each of us came at substantial personal sacrifice. One of the ladies here has even lost her means of livelihood as a result of taking extended time off work. But we came out of a sense of duty and concern; concern that extends, in truth, beyond our compassion for other female devotees.
It is our perception that our movement is becoming more and more fragmented due to a lack of empathy, understanding, honesty, and trust amongst our Society’s members, and thus our Society’s heart is being torn apart. Perhaps the desire to renounce the object of sense gratification has led to a denouncement of women devotees, which in turn results in a denial of the more feminine Vaisnava qualities that each one of us holds within the core of our hearts – qualities that may now be needed to re-instil the trust and faith of our Society’s members.
Despite the sufferings of the past, our concern is not for ourselves, but rather for the health and well-being of our Society. Please give us the opportunity to serve co-operatively and respectfully together, so that we may all fully contribute our talents and abilities in the service of our spiritual master.
1 ‘Women in ISKCON in Prabhupada’s Times.’ Presented to GBC annual meetings in 1997.