Keynote Speech

Men’s Retreat    New Vrindaban, October 6, 2018 (to listen, click here)

Presented by Professor Burke Rochford

The telling of history is almost always a narrative about men. When historians dig out historical documents as they seek to reconstruct and analyze history,it is inevitably a project that tells us far more about men than about women or children. Due to men’s power and position historically, the documents historians find are typically the product of men and written from their point of view. Because of this, men are known/understood in the historical record as the instruments, or perhaps the engines of history.

Thankfully, over the past 30 years or so this has changed. Scholars—many of whom are women—have uncovered the important ways that women have shaped history in America and elsewhere. Their data sources often differ: women’s diaries and journals, and newsletters and other documents from various women’s groups and organizations such as the Women’s Temperance League and groups associated with the first wave of the women’s movement in the 19th century. Given this scholarship, we now accept that women’s history is in fact American history.

However, there is another curiosity and source of distortion that shapes historical understanding.This one relates more directly to this conference. When we say that history has traditionally been men’s history we are really only talking about certain men. The men historians research and write about tend to be societal elites and/or other well-known men. These, after all, are the men who produce and are often the focus of the historical documents that historians uncover. To the extent this is true, we ultimately know far less about the lives and contributions of ordinary men. What we understand as history fails to the extent that it overlooks the great majority of men who work, raise families, and contribute in multiple ways to the public affairs of their communities. So while we have thankfully raised women up as contributors to history, we have unfortunately paid less attention to ordinary men—and here I don’t mean to use “ordinary” in a pejorative or dismissive way. I want to do just the opposite.

I say all this because I think we see something similar in the history of ISKCON. The great majority of what scholars have produced about ISKCON’s history is men’s history but again this is largely a history of elite men. We know a considerable amount about how young sannyasis in the early and mid-1970’s wielded considerable influence/power within ISKCON and profoundly shaped the course of ISKCON’s development (in particular attitudes towards women and family life). We also know plenty about the gurus (all male) who succeeded Prabhupada and the many controversies and scandals that surrounded them. We also know at the local temple level that men served as Temple Presidents until the early 1980s when some women, in the absence of willing men, became Temple Presidents. Moreover, until about twenty years ago when Malati joined the GBC, only men served on ISKCON’s governing body. (Although Prabhupada did, as I recall, indicate that specific women were qualified to serve on the GBC). This is only a partial list to make the point.

As I look at my own writing on ISKCON and that of some other scholars of the movement, it becomes abundantly clear that ISKCON’s history is distorted to the extent it overly focuses on men—that is to say elite men. Clearly, this has come at the expense of greater understanding of the movement as a whole. Thankfully, we now know more, though perhaps not enough, about the many contributions of devotee women and their lives within ISKCON. Outside scholars such as Kim Knott, Susan Palmer, myself, and others have considered devotee women as well as family life. Of equal, if not greater importance, of course, are the writings of a number of devotee women such as Jyotirmayi, Yamuna, Pranada, Radha Dasi, Visakha and others.

However, a gaping hole remains. The fact is we know relatively little about average, ordinary devotee men. These are the men that are the focus of this gathering—the Man-tra.

As I began preparing for this presentation, I was embarrassed to realize that my research has largely neglected the thousands of devotee men attracted to Prabhupada and his movement. Men have certainly been subjects for my many interviews, as well as survey respondents, but I have failed to make the experiences of devotee men topics in themselves. I was forced to ask myself what I know—and more what I don’t know—about these men. I have to say my answer revealed the ways that my research on ISKCON is incomplete and, therefore, in important ways flawed.

I wish I could say that I am going to make up for my failure here—in this presentation—but that is not the case really. My attempt rather is to provide both a history and a perhaps a framework to stimulate, or perhaps guide, our collective thinking as we go forward. More important than what I have to say is the presentations and discussions to follow. This gathering offers a time and a place where each of us can speak openly and honestly about what is means to be a man in the service of Krishna, Prabhupada, ISKCON, and our families. What have we learned over time from our failings as well as our successes as husbands, as fathers, as disciples, and as men more broadly?

We have a significant opportunity here given the presence of first, second, and perhaps third generation devotees among us. Our perspectives will differ certainly,in part because the historical and situational context of each of these generations differ. These differences represent our collective strength but to take advantage of that strength requires that we listen and remain open to points of view that may be very different from our own.
So what do I have to offer?

Let me start with a quote from a respected rabbi and scholar about the relationship between religion and householder life.
… from my point of view, wherever there aren’t any householders a religion can’t live. It
needs to have a matrix in which it is embedded. (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi,

As these words suggest, the family—householder life—is the place, or the matrix, where religion lives and prospers, especially over the course of time. As you will see as I go forward, it is this matrix—the family—that I want to draw attention to because this is where Krishna Consciousness ultimately came to live. The question for us is, what has been, and what will be, the role of men (and women) in this evolving matrix we know as the grhastha ashram.

In what follows, I want to talk history certainly but to do so in terms of the changing contexts that have shaped the lives of devotee men (and of coursedevotee women and children as well). Today, and even during ISKCON’s formative years, we can’t speak of men without also speaking of family. As all of us know, the great majority of devotee men marry and most also have children. To talk of men therefore means to talk of grhastha life. As men, most of us live in families and our greatest contributions and responsibilities lie in ensuring the welfare of our wives and children. Which is to say that devotee men, like other men, live much of their lives in the context of family life. The difference of course is that devotee men commit to advancing the spiritual lives of themselves, their wives and their children as a foremost priority. (But, it is worth reminding ourselves that devotee and non-devotee men are hardly strangers to one another given that both work, parent children, and commit to the well-being of their families.)

In the remainder of my comments, I will briefly summarize dramatic changes in the contexts in which devotee men (and women and children) have lived over the course of the past 50 years of ISKCON’s existence. These contexts have changed due to significant changes within ISKCON as a religious movement and organization. My argument here is that these shifting contexts profoundly shaped and reshaped men’s roles and their place within devotee families. While I will not take the time to get into this here, it is worth notingthat these changing contexts generated conflict and a politic surrounding the grhastha ashram.

The three periods in ISKCON history that I will consider are: (1) The early days of the movement when the ideal for men was to remain as brahmacaris, where marriage was considered Maya, and “protection” of women often meant control rather than ensuring the safety and wellbeing of wives and all devotee women. (2) The second period involved significant changes in the lives of men, women, and children, resulting from the demise of ISKCON’s communal structure and theascendancy of the nuclear family. This was a profoundly significant, if turbulent, period in ISKCON’s history and in the lives of all its members. (3) Finally, the third period is the one we are presently witnessing where the present and future of ISKCON and Prabhupada’s movement rests largely in the hands of the second and third generation. I must admit,I know less about this more recent period andam relying on others to offer their observations and reflections to overcomemy shortcomings.

To end my presentation, I want to underscore the importance of this gathering. For it is time, past time really, for men to speak as men without guilt or defensiveness. How can we as men work together to ensure the well-being of our wives and children while at the same time promote Prabhupada’s mission.

I. Early History: Men as Brahmacaris—Marriage as Maya—“Protection” as Control

ISKCON’s early days involved young, single men (and women) who came to ISKCON striving for a spiritually based way of life. Renunciation, world rejection, preaching, striving forspiritual realization, and creating an ideal devotee community were all goals of Prabhupada’s early disciples.

Communalism provided the context in which these goals were pursued. The emergence of communalism was itself a product of the types of people attracted to Prabhupada and ISKCON (young, unmarried, detached from societal obligations; in San Francisco where communalism first developed in 1967, many of those joining ISKCON were without stable residence. Communalism thus became the answer to hold these aspiring devotees).

Within this communal context, renunciation became the ideal and sannyasi leaders under Prabhupada emphasized this—even if they, in the end, did not always live up to that ideal. To be a man—that is a spiritually determined man was to be a brahmacari. To marrywas considered a fall-down. The “man-tra” of the times for brahmacaries was that marriage was Maya and thus to be avoided. Overpowered by sexual desire, the thinking was that only spiritually weakmen chose to marry. I recall in LA in the mid-1970s being told that the brahmacaries had what amounted to a wake of sorts when one of their fellow brahmacaries decided to marry.

As one former ISKCON devotee stated about the mindset of brahmacaris during the 1970s (Nori Muster in her 2004 article, “Life as a Woman on Watseka Avenue”).
The men thought it Vedic to spit on the ground to demonstrate their resentment toward women. They got their cue from a stanza in the scriptures that said, “Since I have been engaged in the transcendental loving service of Krishna, realizing ever-new pleasure in Him, whenever I think of sex pleasure, I spit at the thought, and my lips curl with distaste (Srimad Bhagavatam 4.25.24, purport, cited in Muster 2004:313).

Such thinking also carried over to the training and socialization of boys in the ashram-gurukula. A devotee who attended the ashram-gurukula here at New Vrindaban told me that his ashram teacher at one point said to him, “Do you want to be a brahmacari or “Momma-cari.” This comment was meant to stop him from telling his mother something that occurred in the ashram.
Clearly, marriage and householder life were not natural and healthy progressions in men’s lives, but instead, an evil to avoid. The consequences of such thinking for devotee men, women and children, turned out to be destructive for many.

While women represented a challenge to men’s spiritual development, it is also true that women required protection. In fact, Prabhupada commented, “Of course, it is better to remain unmarried, celibate. If someone comes to Krsna it is our duty to give them protection…. Women must have a husband to give protection” (Prabhupada 1992:869).
Unfortunately, however, the protection afforded women often involved “control.” A woman I interviewed in 1980 said the following:

I’ve never so much regretted being born in a woman’s body since I joined the ISKCON movement. I’ve never been so much criticized, abused slandered, misunderstood, or chastised because I have this woman’s body. ….. If you are a single woman, every man thinks he is an authority and will yell at you if he feels like it. But it is worse when you are married, because you have one authority and you have to surrender to his inflexible, lord-it-over nature whether he is right or wrong and whether he is nice or cruel about how he relates to you.

Whether this woman’s comments are overly dramatic or not, the fact is the prevailing thinking of this era was that women had to be controlled—controlled in part because they were viewedas a threat to maintaining a celibate life as a brahmacari. Of equal importance, marriage and family also represented a threat to book distribution and sankirtan; that as men and women married and started families they would be less available to preach and distribute Prabhupada’s books. This threat was mitigated in some ISKCON communities—such as here at New Vrindaban—by separating married couples who lived apart from one another—and with the ashram-gurukula, from their children as well.

I think it worth noting that Prabhupada offered a different view. Two things: (1) As Prabhupada explained in a 1976 lecture:
If you can remain without sex life, brahmacari, it is very good. But if you cannot, then get yourself married, live with wife, and only have sex for progeny. Not for sense enjoyment. Therefore, even [if] one is married, if he’s sticking to one wife and wife sticking to one man, that is real married life, then the husband is also called brahmacari. Even though he is grhastha. And wife is called chaste (quoted in Urmila Devi Dasi 1992:6)

(2) As early as 1972, Prabhupada stated that married couples should be required to “produce some outside income and live outside the temple” (Prabhupada 1992:866). However, ISKCON authorities refused to honor this instructionas householder independence was viewed as a threat tobook distribution and temple finances.

I remember when I began my research in Los Angeles in 1975 a devotee family faced considerable criticism when they chose to move a couple of doors (apartment complexes) down Watseka Ave. just outside the boundaries that defined the temple community. They simply wanted some independence. However, other community members assumed that they had fallen into Maya—wanting to watch TV or perhaps engage in some other “sinful” behavior.This move immediately transformed them into “fringees” and, therefore, devotees to avoid. (No one speaks of fringees these days.) “Fringees’ despite the fact that both husband and wife continued to attend temple programs and to do service within the devotee community.

Finally, one might assume that the gender traditionalism and outright sexism that existed in ISKCON was peculiar to the movement. In some ways it was. However, it is worth reminding ourselves that the second wave of the women’s movement emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s largely in responseto the sexism women activists experiencedin both the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements. (For those interested, read Doug McAdam’s book, Freedom Summer and Rebecca Klatch’s, A Generation Divided.)

II. The Demise of Communalism—the Ascendency of the Nuclear Family—And the Changing Views of Family Life and the Roles of Men and Women

The second context that shaped men’s lives was as radical as the first. Following Prabhupada’s disappearance, ISKCON underwent profound change in a matter of just a few years. From a communal structure, ISKCON quickly became a congregationalmovement of independent nuclear families. The dramatic decline of book distribution in America by 1980, and the corresponding loss of revenue,resulted in thecollapse of ISKCON’s communal structure. This had a transformative effect on the lives of men, women, and children, and, of course, on ISKCON itself.[In 1980, only about one-third of the number of books was distributed in North America as the total distributed in 1976.]

The implosion of ISKCON’s communal structure meant that householders, along with their children, had to establish independent lives. The nuclear family thus replaced communalism as the foundational structure in which householders lived and practiced Krishna Consciousness. Most men, and many women, found work in the outside labor market. Parents scrambled to find the right school situation for their children after theashram-gurukula collapsed. (Many relocated to Alachua drawn largely by the schools. This after the Lake Huntington gurukula in upstate New York closed in the mid-1980s.) Suddenly, husbands and wives had to work out a division of labor in their newly formed households. With jobs, and child responsibilities, attending early morning temple programs proved difficult and most chose to worship in their homes. Offering service to their local ISKCON temple also represented a challenge for many.

The emergence of the nuclear family meant that men had to assume the role as heads of their household. To be a “good” man was to work and provide for the material needs of his family. It also meant that men, along with their wives, were responsible for the spiritual welfare of their children. Protection thus became a partnership between husband and wife who acted as best they could in the interest of their children’s wellbeing.

The transition from communalism to the nuclear family was certainly not easy and many marriages suffered as a result. ISKCON also suffered in the absence of a committed workforce capable of maintaining its temples. The transition to the nuclear family also brought significant changes in how devotees perceived both householder life and women.

Some of you may remember the Prabhupada Centennial Survey conducted in 1995 and 1996. This was a worldwide survey of nearly 2000 devotees. The survey asked devotees to offer their views on a large variety of issues faced by ISKCON and its members. The handout distributed includes two tables comparing the views of North American devotee men and women (594 respondents) on a number of agree/disagree statements related to family life and women’s roles and experiences within ISKCON.

The findings in the Table 1 compare men and women’s views concerning householder life. These findings should be interpreted in light of the prevailing idea that householder life was “Maya” during ISKCON’s early years.

As the findings reveal a substantial majority of both men and women strongly agree or agree that, “The needs and problems of householders have been largely ignored by ISKCON’s leadership.” Seventy-nine percent of women agreed with the statement and two-thirds (66%) of the men also agreed. Similarly, large percentages also agreed that, “The needs of family must become one of our movement’s greatest concerns in the coming years.” (More than 80% of men and women agreed or strongly agreed.)

Other findings point to both the importance, and challenges, associated with householder life. Large percentages of men and women agreed that tending to the welfare of one’s children was as important as any other service performed in ISKCON (both over 80%); the demands of work and family have limited ISKCON involvement (women 63%, men 57%); fathers should work and support their families and mothers should care for children and home (women 61%, men 79%); and, that the future of ISKCON lies with the commitment of the movement’s children (women 84%, men 77%).

Turning to Table 2:
Although there are differences with respect to the strength of agreement, both men and women generally embracedgreater equality for women. Women and men both agreed that women should be allowed to chant in the temple with men, have equal access to the Deities during worship, and have the same opportunities as men to realize their potential in devotional service. In addition, both men and women agreed that performance, not gender, should be the criterion for placement in an ISKCON position. Both sexes agreed that women are the spiritual equals of men and that Prabhupada never intended women devotees to be treated as other than equal to devotee men. Finally, there is strong agreement that over time, male attitudes have become more accepting of devotee women.

While virtually all of the statements in each of these tables are no longer controversial to most devotees today, this was hardly true as ISKCON was in a state of transition during the 1980s and early 1990s.
Considered as a whole, these findings confirm that ISKCON’s traditionalist gender ideology lost much of its appeal for wide portions of the movement’s North American membership (as of the mid and late 1990s). As the culture that existed under communalism eroded, and the nuclear family took its place, different and often more mainstream gender ideals took hold.

I want to emphasize that the generally positive views of both householder life and women came about after the transition from communalism to the nuclear family. Traditionalist ideas concerning householder life and women no longer fit the changed realitiesmost devotees faced outside of ISKCON’s communities. Nor did these traditionalist ideals any longer serve the interests of ISKCONgiven the organization’s need to enlist women to take on responsible positions such as Temple President. It was difficult to sustain the idea that women were less intelligent than men, for example, when women were being asked to take on complex institutional roles such as Temple President. I should add that the weakenedauthority of ISKCON’s leadersleft them powerless to resist the winds of change occurring throughout the movement.

III. Second and Third Generation—Where Are We Today?

As all of us know, today ISKCON is a far different religious organization than during its formative years.Equally different are the lives of most devotees who, by choice or necessity, are essentially bicultural—having a foot in both the culture of ISKCON and in the mainstream society. Most ISKCON temples in North America are no longer filled by first generation devotees and their descendants but instead by ethnic Hindus and their families.Among the western devoteeswho remain active in ISKCONthe majority are older Prabhupada disciples and their children and grandchildren. Yet hardly a day goes by when we don’thear aboutanother Prabhupada disciple leavinghis or her body. Given this reality, the future of Prabhupada’s mission—if not ISKCON itself—lies with the second and third generation. They are the matrix builders of today and tomorrow. They and their children represent the future of Prabhupada’s movement.

It is not a stretch to say that every devotee parent aspires to raise healthyand happy children guided by the values and ideals of Krishna Consciousness. The question of course is how best to do this. I am anxious to hear how the young men and women part of this gathering are crafting family lives giventhe multiple demands they face as husbands and fathers. What I see from a distance, however, is encouraging given their commitment to familyand its place inbuilding and sustaining strong and respectful devotee communities.

In 2016, New Vrindaban hosted the 10th Kulimela. Approximately 700 people attended including first, second, and third generation devotees. One hundred children also attended. Like many of you, I had the pleasure of attending this event. The Kulimela provided an opportunity for renewing friendships certainlybut it also promoted a serious and important objective: the theme was “Celebrating Family and Building Community.” As Chaitanya Mangala, one of the co-organizers of the Kulimela stated, “There’s practically no better way to express our themes of family and community than taking care of the future generation.” I suspect everyone here would agree.

The Kulimela included approximately thirty seminars and classes on topics such as parenting, homeschooling, child protection, and finding a compatible marriage partner. There was also a seminar on healing to address the trauma suffered by many second-generation devotees as students in the ashram-gurukulas of the 1970s and 1980s. In addition, attention was also given to the strained relationship that continues to exist between many first and second-generation devotees (MadhavaSmullen, ISKCON News, June 24, 2016).

I came away from the Kulimela reassured and optimistic about the future of Prabhupada’s movement given that it will be in the good hands of committed and thoughtful second and third generation devotees. I only hope that ISKCON’s leadership will offer help to assist the young devotees who Prabhupada called ISKCON’s “future hope.”

IV. Conclusion and Questions

When my dear friend Anuttama asked me to make a presentation at this gathering, I agreed mostly because of our friendship. Not long afterwards, however, I began to have doubts about my decision.I realized I would have to relive some of ISKCON’s “ugly” and “hurtful” history concerning marriage and family life.Like many devotees, I wanted to avoid reopening old wounds that I had worked to push to the back of my mind. Then, as now, I am angry and distressed about the abuse of women, children, and yes men, by ISKCON authorities.

Young boys and girls abused. Women neglected and abused, and sometimes married off by leaders as “rewards” to men engaged in what was considered “valuable service.”
Deplorable attacks on women, and marriage and family life, by some renunciate leaders more concerned with “laxmi points” than with the well-being of Krishna’s devotees.
The “good old days” that some devotees nostalgically speak of were, in fact, not so good for many devotees. Yet I must admit preparing this presentation turned out to be more than just negative memories.

For in the end, I was reminded that the future of Prabhupada’s movement is progressively transitioning into what appears to be the capable hands of ISKCON’s second and third generations.
Because these devotees have made family life central to their identities, Krishna Consciousness promises to thrive as part of a new and healthier matrix—that is a new and healthier grhastha ashram. This realization makes me hopeful. It also reminds me that those of us who are older have a special obligation to help these devotees. They are the future. Hare Krishna.

Devotee Men and the Contexts that Shape (and have Shaped) Our Lives.

Burke Rochford

Table 1.  Select Agree-Disagree Statements Regarding Family/Householder Life

by Gender.







Agree            Agree



Agree            Agree


The needs and problems of householders have been largely ignored by ISKCON’s leadership.


34%                45%

(60)                 (81)


23%                43%

(71)                (130)

The needs of family must become one of our movement’s greatest concerns in the coming years.  40%                46%

(74)                 (86)

 32%               54%

(100)              (169)

Tending to the welfare of one’s children

is equal in importance to any other

devotional service performed in our



 59%                32% (114)                (61)  43%               43%

(135)              (135)

Practically speaking, because of the demands of family and/or work I have little time to become more involved in ISKCON.


 22%                41%

(35)                 (66)

 12%               45%

(32)               (120)

Fathers should work and support their families; Mothers should care for children and home.


 21%                40%

(40)                 (76)

 24%               55%

(77)               (179)

The future of ISKCON lies with the commitment of the movement’s children.  42%                42%

(81)                 (81)

 30%                47%

(96)                (152)

*   The findings reported in Tables 1 and 2 are from the Prabhupada Centennial Survey conducted in 1995-1996 and include devotee respondents from North America only.



Table 2.  Select Agree-Disagree Statements Regarding Women’s Roles within ISKCON

by Gender.







Agree            Agree



Agree            Agree


Women and men should be able to chant japa together in the Temple.



49%                34%

(76)                (52)


23%                53%

(55)                (128)

Men and women should worship on different sides of the temple so that both have equal access to the Deities.



49%                35%

(72)                 (51)


31%                51%

(74)                (120)

Women should have the same opportunities as men to realize their full potential in devotional service.


 73%                24%

(111)               (36)

 53%                42%

(131)              (104)


Performance not gender should determine who is placed in a given ISKCON position.


 62%                28%

(91)                (41)

  45%               39%

(106)              (92)

Women are the spiritual equals of men.


 66%               29%

(100)              (44)

  49%               45%

(120)              (110)


Prabhupada never intended for women to be treated as if they were less than equal to men.


 61%               28%

(90)               (41)

  39%               45%

(91)               (107)

Over the past several years I have seen the attitude of devotee men toward women devotees become more accepting. 7%                76%

(10)               (105)

  9%                 80%

(20)                (172)


Questions for Discussion:

Clearly, not all devotee families are the same and the roles men play in family life differ.  In a sense, it is more accurate to speak of matrices rather than the singular matrix Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi speaks of in reference to householder life.  With that in mind, what can we say about the following questions?


  • In the most general sense, how does being a devotee husband and father differ from husbands and fathers in the mainstream society? How are we different beyond simply acknowledging that we are devotees of Krishna?  What does that mean in practical terms?  How do our households differ from those in the conventional culture?   How are they similar?
  • Is there a generational affect here? For example, I notice with my own adult children and their friends that they are generally egalitarian in their relationships with their spouses.  Is this also true for second-generation devotees?  If so, this raises the question of how trends in the larger society might influence, or perhaps shape, young devotees thinking about marriage and fatherhood.
  • Who has provided positive role models for being men, husbands, and fathers? Many of the older members of the second generation grew up largely apart from their fathers and mothers in the ashram-gurukula.  As you grew older who had the greatest influence on how you thought about being a “good” husband and father?  (For many men, our fathers are a significant point of reference, if not a positive model, for how to act as a husband and father.)
  • Evangelical Christians use the term “male headship” to refer to the duties of men in family life. Traditionally, this has meant that men are the primary breadwinner, are responsible for the spiritual lives of their wives and children, and in charge of disciplining children.  Does this apply to devotee men who are householders?  If so, how?  If not, how do the responsibilities of devotee men differ?
  • What does “protection” mean for devotee men today? Does it largely mean providing materially for the needs of our wives and children as well as their spiritual development?
  • How do husbands and their wives work out a division of labor in their households? Is it based largely on traditional sex roles or. . . .?
  • What resources exist in your devotee communities to help young men and women transitioning into marriage and family life? The Grhastha Vision Team is a valuable resource certainly but what others exist?  Men’s group?  Where do you turn when you face the inevitable difficulties that arise in marriage and/or family life?
  • What role can (or does) the first-generation play in helping younger devotees transitioning to marriage and family life?

(20) (172)


We seek to support, strengthen, educate and enliven the individuals, couples and families who are or will be involved with the grihastha ashram.