Fundamental Human Rights in ISKCON

Cults and Society, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2001

Fundamental Human Rights in ISKCON

Radha Devi Dasi

The individuality of the self is a central teaching in Vaisnava philosophy, but what is our practical understanding of this term?  Individuality is present in all living beings on both a material and a spiritual level.  This article translates how this concept needs to relate to education practices in ISKCON today.  The author explores evidence in some of Srila Prabhupada's writings and scripture that deal with the issue of individuality together with some more recent research by academics in the field.  With this data, the author builds a persuasive argument for devotees to become more aware of the individual, both in themselves and in others so that they may respond with respectful awareness to the individual's needs.

Everyone has an equal right to execute devotional service. That is the platform of oneness and the basis for a classless society.

Srila Prabhupada [i]

Oppression is not a spiritual phenomenon. Yet, the history of organised religion abounds with examples of oppression in various forms at various times. From early Christian martyrs to the Spanish Inquisition, from the Salem witch trials to abuses of the caste system and the treatment of ‘untouchables’ in India, there has always been a risk of oppression in the name of God.  

Research shows that there are certain universal factors that cause or contribute to oppression within institutions and nations, and there is also firm evidence that legal structures in the form of Human Rights can minimise the tendency toward oppression. For these reasons, a Declaration of Fundamental Human Rights for the protection of both the institution and the members of the society would benefit the Society.  

Oppression is defined as an "unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power." [ii] We must guard against oppressive behaviour in our society. We understand as devotees, that oppression is a phenomenon of the Kali-yuga, the age of quarrel and hypocrisy in which we now reside, rather than being a symptom of religion. In fact, Srimad Bhagavatam predicts that the age of Kali will be characterised by a lack of justice. As H. H. Hridayananda Swami points out:  

Already in many nations justice is available only to those who can pay and fight for it. In a civilised state, every man, woman and child must have equal and rapid access to a fair system of laws. In modern times we sometimes refer to this as Human Rights. Certainly Human Rights are one of the more obvious casualties of the age of Kali. [iii]

Unfortunately, many of us have has an opportunity to observe the "unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power" within our Society. Vulnerable groups, particularly women and children, have been neglected and abused in numerous ways, which allegedly range from dismaying to truly abominable. The purpose of this article is not to catalogue or recount the various injustices that have been perpetrated by individuals acting in the name of ISKCON. Although naming the abuse is a vital step in eliminating the wrongs, that important task has been and continues to be done in other places.  

However, we must go further than simply identifying the behaviours we wish to change. To some extent, we have been naive in believing that sincerity alone could rectify the abuses which we seek to eradicate. We must address the underlying causes of the abuse if we are to arrive at meaningful solutions.  

From a psychological point of view, oppression and other forms of injustice spring from a separateness of vision that is based on material conditioning. A necessary precondition to abusing others is learning to see those others as fundamentally different from oneself. The Srimad Bhagavatam, one of our main scriptures, describes this phenomenon as prthak-drstih, which Srila Prabhupada translates as "the vision of duality." [iv] In the related purport, Srila Prabhupada explains that this dual vision is the result of material conditioning, which causes one to identify with the body, rather than with one's identity as a servant of Krishna. Perceptions based on body, Srila Prabhupada writes, cause one to think in terms of "my body, my wife, my child, my home." Such perceptions permit us to see others as objects of our own enjoyment rather than as servants of the Lord.  

This ability to artificially separate oneself from others is the root of oppression. Scholars have noted that one of the common roots of racial, gender, and animal oppression is the use of linguistic devices that put the oppressed group into a different category from the oppressor.[v] Carol Adams writes that oppression involves a three-part cycle of objectification, fragmentation, and consumption; it is the first stage, objectification, which begins the process of rationalizing unjust treatment. [vi]  

Animals are objectified by language that treats them as objects rather than as living entities. For instance, we eat "beef" rather than "cows." This objectification permits us to avoid the truth about our actions. The second stage, fragmentation, can be symbolic or literal. In the case of animals, they are literally fragmented in the butchering process. We then deal with "chops" and "joints" rather than living creatures. We say "I am having pork chops for dinner" rather than "I’m having a pig for dinner." The final stage of the process, consumption, occurs when we have so divorced ourselves from the real identity of other beings that we can abuse them. This abuse takes the form of literal consumption in the case of animals.  

These three processes may be more symbolic, but no less harmful, in the case of humans. For instance, the Nazis successfully objectified European Jews, convincing other European citizens that the Jews did not deserve the protection of Civil Law because they were less than human. The Nazis then used fragmentation to isolate the Jews physically and psychologically from the rest of the population. The Jews were then ‘consumed’ by the Nazis in the concentration camps. Objectification begins a process which permits fragmentation, both within society and on a concrete, individual level. The final step in the cycle, consumption, occurs when the oppressed being is seen as a mere possession for the enjoyment of the oppressor. Such a vision could support acts such as rape and murder. [vii]  

While ISKCON is a society founded on spiritual truth, we are not exempt from material influences that plague other institutions. In particular, we sometimes suffer from the same separateness of vision that leads to oppression in the larger society: we witness a separation of vision from the principles of our philosophy, to our actual practice of faith. For instance, when we speak of the society outside our own institution, we have our own jargon that both isolates us and condemns those who are not members of our organization. Those outside our movement are called "karmis," "demons," "melecchas," and "sudras." We describe ourselves as "devotees," "Vaisnavas," "devas," and ‘brahmanas." [viii] These labels shape our vision of others and ourselves in ways that divide us from the very people we are trying to reach.  

Language is also used to marginalize those who oppose the current power structure. For instance, anyone unsatisfied with the local status quo can be labeled as "in maya." [ix] When one is "in maya" one's integrity, intelligence, and loyalty to ISKCON are automatically suspect and many temple communities feel no compunction regarding harsh or unfair treatment of someone who is "in maya." It is ironic that many of the positions and policies that are in favor today were dismissed as being "in maya" ten years ago. Moreover, we must not isolate ourselves from constructive reform, otherwise those elements of our society that are marginalized will resort to more disruptive methods of ensuring that their voices are heard within the society. For this reason we must build the institutional framework that allows all of our members to have their voices heard and their needs met. A Bill of Rights for every member is one of the first steps to meeting this objective.  

Similarly, our language divides male and female members of our movement. When we say "devotees and matajis" (devotees and mothers), as we frequently do, we place women in a category separate from devotees. We may use or at least sanction by listening to others use derogatory names for women such as "witch," "Maya-devis" [x] with "no souls" and "razor like hearts." One of the most telling examples of this phenomenon is found in Srila Prabhupada's Lilamrta where the presence of devotees at one event is described by listing the names of the men present and adding "and their wives" at the end to acknowledge the presence of the female attendees. Thus, in one of the official histories of our movement, women have been, at least at times, robbed of their individual identities. This use of language, which in many cases is benignly motivated, facilitates the dangerous process of objectification.  

Objectification poses a particular difficulty for religious organizations seeking to eliminate oppressive behaviors. That difficulty is the tendency of religious institutions to transform customary behavior into sacred behavior. For instance, in many Christian churches during the 1960s the use of musical instruments such as guitars or drums, in preference to the traditional church organ, were viewed as heretical, in spite of the fact that the Christian religion did not prohibit the use of any particular musical instrument for worship.  

Similarly, women in ISKCON face enormous difficulties in eliminating the "women in the back" policy in some of our gender segregated temple rooms in spite of the fact that ISKCON's original policy permitted men and women to stand on different sides of the temple room with equal access to the altar. [xi] Part of the resistance to changing that policy is the mistaken belief that the "women in the back" is the traditional policy when, in fact, it is not a traditional practice in Vrindaban, India nor is it the policy implemented by Srila Prabhupada. In ISKCON, as in other religious institutions, unjust behavior may be codified and protected in the mistaken belief that such behavior is spiritual. Hence, the material process of objectification can pose a special danger for religious institutions.  

I do not contend that we must always avoid distinctions between groups, or that we cannot engage in evaluations of our members. Such distinctions and evaluations are a necessary part of operating an international organization. However, I hold that we require some structural limits on our power to distinguish and label. In the absence of such limits, as we have discovered to our cost, power can sometimes become abusive.  

Human rights provide one measure of protection from abuse of power. While classification of people into different groups is a necessary part of a social institution, the presence of certain fundamental entitlements that are available equally to everyone will help to prevent classification from becoming objectification and oppression.  

Fundamental Human Rights are entirely consistent with Vaisnava philosophy. Srila Prabhupada himself recognized the existence of universal rights. In fact, he went so far as to stress that there are certain rights belonging to both human and non-human living entities. In a lecture he gave in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1975, Srila Prabhupada told his followers that all living entities have a birthright to use sufficient economic resources to maintain life. He said that a failure to understand this right springs from material conditioning. [xii]  

Srila Prabhupada also taught that human beings have equal spiritual rights to opportunities for advancing in the service of Krsna. The Gaudiya Math, the institution in which Srila Prabhupada took initiation, has been considered controversial for preaching a doctrine that holds that those born in varnas (social positions) outside brahminical society can be given brahmana initiation. Srila Prabhupada was criticized by spiritual practitioners in India who held that non-Indians could never become brahmanas. In defense of his practice of initiating non-Indians, Srila Prabhupada said that all living entities have a right to serve Krsna and to make advancement in Krsna consciousness. In a lecture he gave in Toronto, Canada in 1976, Srila Prabhupada told his disciples that these rights apply to both female and male disciples. [xiii]  

Thus, it is not the existence of fundamental Human Rights that are at issue in ISKCON, but the nature of those rights. Nor can we ignore, however, the practical effects of the policies we adopt. The type of rights we integrate into our social fabric will have a profound impact on the type of society we form.  

Systems of governance that do not grant Human Rights, however well intentioned, are systems with little accountability. Adding Human Rights to a system of governance creates a standard against which a leader’s conduct can be measured. Human rights are a codification of a leader's duties to his or her followers and help to hold that leader accountable for his actions. Open societies in which rights are granted are more stable and productive societies with less conflict, and with less behavior that is destructive to other groups and to the environment as a whole than are societies that fail to grant such rights. [xiv] Adopting a declaration of Human Rights will help ISKCON to become a more productive and stable society.  

A system of fundamental Human Rights is consistent with a spiritual philosophy based on surrender. In fact, surrender, submission and humility are internal qualities that cannot be legislated. Any attempt to use institutional structures to impose the external appearance of these qualities would result in oppression as well as foolish and ineffective policy.  

Srila Prabhupada's descriptions of submission and surrender clarify the voluntary nature of these qualities. In these descriptions Srila Prabhupada explains that devotees can offer their submission to Krsna in three ways. He writes that one can surrender by offering prayers, humbly submitting oneself, or by desiring some stage of perfection. [xv] All three of these processes are voluntary. Similarly, Srila Prabhupada often cited Arjuna's voluntary surrender to Krsna in the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita as the perfect example of the quality of submission. His words make clear that submission is an internal quality that transforms the attitude and external behavior of an individual and has to be cultivated by each member. For this reason submission cannot be legislated by our society. Hence, the grant of Human Rights is consistent with the spiritual qualities we seek to acquire.  

The Declaration of Fundamental Human Rights which follows is a proposal intended to begin discussion on this issue. No one person can define the rights that our society should adopt. However, it is my hope that the members of ISKCON can work together to create institutional safeguards which will protect us from the mistakes we have made in the past. Rights to participate freely in the activities of our society are essential to creating the vital and productive society that will be most pleasing to Srila Prabhupada.  


Whereas, recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all living beings is a fundamental tenet of Vaisnava philosophy;

Whereas, compassion and mercy are essential qualities of Vaisnavas;

Whereas disregard and contempt for the rights of living beings have resulted in injurious acts (both inside and outside the Hare Krishna Movement) which outrage the conscience of all compassionate beings; and

Whereas it is essential to the continued existence of ISKCON that we

Now therefore, we adopt the following Bill of Rights for all of the members of ISKCON:

Article 1

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are all members of Krishna's family endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of love and compassion.

Article 2

Membership in ISKCON is available to all people who desire such membership and who agree to the conditions of such membership. No one shall be denied membership in ISKCON on the basis of race, national or social origin, language, birth status or gender.

Article 3

Every member of ISKCON is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction on the basis of race, national or social origin, language, birth status, age, gender, or identity of the member's initiating guru as long as that guru is authorized by ISKCON to give initiation.

Article 4

Every member of ISKCON has the right to freedom from violence, torture, cruel or degrading treatment and abuse. It is the duty of ISKCON leaders to provide environments that are free from violence, torture, cruel or degrading treatment and abuse.

Article 5

ISKCON is a voluntary society and no member of ISKCON shall be held in a condition of involuntary service.

Article 6

All members of ISKCON are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the laws which govern our society.

Article 7

Every member of ISKCON has the right to an effective remedy by ISKCON's Governing Body Commission (GBC) for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him or her under this Declaration.

Article 8

No member of ISKCON shall be subjected to any arbitrary sanction or punishment by any ISKCON authority.

Article 9

Every member of ISKCON is entitled in full equality to a fair hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal in the determination of his or her rights and obligations in relationship to ISKCON.

Article 10

No member of ISKCON shall have his or her membership rights in ISKCON limited or terminated without a full and fair hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal. It is essential to such a full and fair hearing that the accused ISKCON member be given (a) reasonable notice of the hearing, (b) the opportunity to present witnesses and evidence on his or her own behalf, and (c) the opportunity to confront the witnesses and evidence against him or her.

Article 11

Every member of ISKCON shall have the right to freedom of movement and residence. Every temple dependent resident member shall have the right to leave his or her temple ashrama for the purpose of establishing his own separate residence at any time. However, any ISKCON member who seeks residence in a temple ashrama must abide by the rules of that ashram, including the rules of admission to that ashram.

Article 12

Every member of ISKCON who is of full legal age, without any limitation due to race, national or social origin, language, birth status, gender or religion, shall have the right to marry and to found a family.

Both male and female members of ISKCON are entitled to equal rights under ISKCON and secular law as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. However, this article does not itself create any right to dissolve a marriage.

Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by ISKCON.

Article 13

Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. It is the duty of ISKCON leaders to provide protection to the women and children in their area. It is also the duty of ISKCON leaders to provide resources and programs for the development and enrichment of the children in ISKCON.

Article 14

Every member of ISKCON shall have the right to freedom of thought and conscience. While ISKCON leaders may place reasonable restrictions on a member's public expression of ideas which conflict with ISKCON's position, no member of ISKCON shall be sanctioned for ideas or beliefs which differ from official ISKCON positions or for ideas or beliefs which contradict those of ISKCON leaders. However, this provision shall not prevent ISKCON from requiring that its members ascribe to ISKCON's official positions in order to hold leadership positions.  

Article 15

Every member of ISKCON shall be entitled to such education and service opportunities as will assist his or her full development in Krsna consciousness without discrimination on the basis of race, national or social origin, language, birth status, gender, or identity of the member's initiating guru as long as that guru is authorized by ISKCON to give initiation.

Article 16

Every temple dependent resident member of ISKCON shall be entitled to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself or herself and his or her family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care, rest, and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

While ISKCON leaders are not responsible for the standard of living of non-temple dependent members of ISKCON, they have a duty to foster the development of necessary economic support skills among the members in their care and to avoid setting policies which would interfere with the ability of non-temple dependent members to provide an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families.

Article 17

Each member of ISKCON shall have the right to information about the process by which ISKCON is governed and, in particular, shall be entitled to information about:

    the nature and content of proposals made at each annual Mayapur  meeting of the GBC;

    the identification of those proposals which are adopted at each annual Mayapur meeting of the GBC; and

    the nature and outcome of formal disciplinary proceedings undertaken by ISKCON authorities against ISKCON leaders;

Article 18

In the exercise of his or her rights and freedoms, each member of ISKCON shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by ISKCON leaders to be essential for the purpose of securing recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare of ISKCON.


[i] Bhaktivedanta Swami, A. C., Caitanya Caritamrta, Madhya Lila, Los Angeles, California: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1994, 25.121 purport  

[ii] Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Springfield, Massachusetts: Webster Inc., 1986, p. 828  

[iii] Bhaktivedanta Swami, A. C., Srimad Bhagavatam, Los Angeles, California: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1994, 12.2.2. purport  

[iv] Bhaktivedanta Swami, Srimad Bhagavatam 4.2.21  

[v] Adams, Carol J., The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1995. Also see Spiegel, Marjorie, The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1988  

[vi] Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, p. 47  

[vii] Ibid.  

[viii] 1) karmi; materialist 2) melecchas; a derogatory term for those that consume meat 3) sudra; members of the labouring class, usually used to imply that they are less intelligent 4) Vaishnavas; devotees of Lord Vishnu 6) devas; demi-god 7) Brahmanas; the priestly class.  

[ix] If one is "in maya" then one is said to be "in illusion" by not acting on the instructions of the Lord, but acting under the material energy that binds one to the material world.  

[x] Maya-devi; Maya is the illusionary energy of the Lord and serves him by enticing living entities to enjoy in the material world. As a consequence the individual becomes more bewildered by the fleeting nature of happiness in the material world and in this way the individual’s progress toward freeing themselves from the cycle of birth and death is retarded. Women have been compared to Maya-devi as a detriment to the spiritual lives of men.  

[xi] See Jyotirmayi devi dasi, ‘Women in ISKCON in Prabhupada's Times’ electronic publication online at (1997)  

[xii] 22, October 1975  

[xiii] 18, June 1976  

[xiv] Shattuck, ‘Human Rights and Democracy in Asia’, 5 U.S. Dept. State Dispatch 480-1 (18, July 1994)  

[xv] Swami Bhaktivedanta, A. C., Nectar of Devotion, Los Angeles, CA: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1994, pp. 80-81

This article is reprinted with permission from ISKCON Communications Journal, Volume 6, Number 2, 1998, pages 7-14.  The journal's address is:  63 Divinity Rd, Oxford, OX4 1LH, UK (E-mail:; Web site: