Female Diksa-gurus in ISKCON
A paper by the Sastric Advisory Council (SAC)
Members participating in the authorship of this paper: Suhotra Svami, Gopiparanadhana Dasa, Drutakarma Dasa, Purnacandra Dasa, Devamrta Dasa
On the 17th of September 2003, the Sastric Advisory Council (SAC) received a request from the Executive Committee (EC) of the GBC requesting it to research the philosophical topic of possible future female diksa-gurus in ISKCON:
“We are aware that the possibility of devotees wanting ladies to become gurus in ISKCON is there, but so far no one has addressed the matter of how correct or appropriate it may be in terms of Srila Prabhupada’s statements, sastra, the statements of previous acaryas, or historical considerations. Now that Urmila’s name has been proposed as a guru within ISKCON it has brought the subject to the forefront, and the EC feels there is a need for research to be done for a clear understanding. We would like SAC to research this and give us a report. We will conduct a separate discussion about the cultural impact of this decision. All we request from you is a philosophical understanding.”
In regards to the processing of Urmila Devi’s particular case in ISKCON one member of the EC wrote, “As far as I understand it is the regular process. We haven’t changed GBC law. But she has already received three objections, which means that her nomination goes before the entire GBC body in Mayapur for discussion. So the GBC body wants to be prepared sastrically to discuss this issue, draw a conclusion and make an informed vote on it. Also, we want devotees in general to understand that the decision of the GBC was made in knowledge of Vaisnava history and siddhanta.”
SAC members felt that the circumstances of the task were valid, and the topic interesting, and so accepted the task. Urmila Devi, however, being a SAC member involved in this case before the GBC, excused herself from the discussion and writing of this paper.
Furthermore, in order to ensure that all sides of the topic were properly represented, SAC accepted a temporary member representing Vaishnavas raised in Bharata where one might question the propriety of female devotees as gurus due to cultural background.
SAC members decided to proceed by trying to gather evidence in the following categories: (1) statements by Srila Prabhupada (2) statements by other Gaudiya Vaishnava acaryas (3) statements by other Vaishnava acaryas (4) statements from Vaishnava smrtis and (5) historical examples.
We also decided to broaden our view and assist the GBC in their discussions on cultural impact by conducting a limited survey of leaders of Gaudiya and other Vaishnava sampradayas; that will be presented separately. We began our discussions on the 8th of May 2004. The results are found below.
Negative Evidence (SAC comments in italics / essential points in bold italics)
1) Hari-bhakti-vilasa (11.708) quotes from the Visnu Purana (3.12.30) (regarding how a grhastha should work in this world):
na casam visvased budhah
na caiversur bhavet tasu
“A wise man should never insult women, nor should he trust them. He should never become jealous of women, nor should he ever appoint them.”
Srila Sanatana Gosvami comments: nadhikuryat adhikaram na kuryat. yad va stribhyo ’dhikaram na dadhyat ity arthah. “Nadhikuryat” means one should not appoint women or that one should not give authority to women.
This is a general statement. It states that women should not be given positions of authority. Of course, this authority could mean only administrative positions like kings or other heads of state. After all, being a mother is also a role of authority.
2) “As for behavior, there are many rules and regulations guiding human behavior, such as the Manu-samhita, which is the law of the human race. Even up to today, those who are Hindu follow the Manu-samhita. Laws of inheritance and other legalities are derived from this book. Now, in the Manu-samhita it is clearly stated that a woman should not be given freedom. That does not mean that women are to be kept as slaves, but they are like children. Children are not given freedom, but that does not mean that they are kept as slaves. The demons have now neglected such injunctions, and they think that women should be given as much freedom as men. However, this has not improved the social condition of the world. Actually, a woman should be given protection at every stage of life. She should be given protection by the father in her younger days, by the husband in her youth, and by the grownup sons in her old age. This is proper social behavior according to the Manu-samhita. But modern education has artificially devised a puffed-up concept of womanly life, and therefore marriage is practically now an imagination in human society. Nor is the moral condition of woman very good now.” (Bg 16.7 purport)
One will find many such restrictive statements about women made by Srila Prabhupada. These are in regard to eternal varnasrama principles given by Manu. Therefore they also apply to today’s world. If female devotees are to follow their Godbrothers in accepting the role of guru in ISKCON at all, such a decision will surely not be based upon the equal- rights doctrine found in modern Western civilization.
3) “In the Manu-smrti it is stated that a woman should not be given independence, but should be given protection by her father, husband and elderly sons. In all circumstances a woman should remain dependent upon some guardian. Presently women are given full independence like men, but actually we can see that such independent women are no happier than those women who are placed under guardians. If people follow the injunctions given by the great sages, srutis and smrtis, they can actually be happy in both this life and the next. Unfortunately rascals are manufacturing so many ways and means to be happy. Everyone is inventing so many methods. Consequently human society has lost the standard ways of life, both materially and spiritually, and as a result people are bewildered, and there is no peace or happiness in the world. Although they are trying to solve the problems of human society in the United Nations, they are still baffled. Because they do not follow the liberated instructions of the Vedas, they are unhappy.” (Bhag. 4.18.3 purport)
One may refer to such statements in connection to our theme. Srila Prabhupada, however, is not directly speaking about female diksa-gurus. Then again, these kinds of statements may be followed, and thus reconciled, by supportive facilities in the form of relative prerequisites in deciding female diksa-guru eligibility. Samples of such conditions are presented at the end of this paper as only humble suggestions.
4) “Abala, another name of the woman. Just like if somebody attacks woman… Any young man, when he has got sixteen years old, he can attack any woman. But a woman, even though she is sixteen years or eighteen years or twenty years, she becomes immediately victim. So abaleva. Even the woman is higher in age, still, she cannot protect. Therefore woman requires protection. Woman requires protection. According to Vedic culture, woman has no independence, because they cannot keep their independence. It is not possible. A sixteen-year-old boy can go safely all over the world, but a sixteen-year girl cannot. That is not possible.”
If female devotees are to assume the role of spiritual master, then that role would be executed differently than a sannyasi because women require protection. Srila Prabhupada continues:
“By nature, they are weak. So they require protection. And until she reaches youth-hood, she is protected by the father. As soon as she reaches youthhood, she is given to a young man, her husband, to give protection. And in old age, she is protected by the elderly sons. This is the Vedic culture. They have three phases of life: childhood, youth-hood, and old age. Because they are weak. In the Western countries, the women are given freedom like man, but that is unnatural. Unnatural. Therefore these poor souls are being exploited by the other section. It is a great deficiency of the Western sociology. But the Vedic culture is different from this. Woman is not given independence.” (Bhag. 1.15.20 lecture 30 November 1973, LA)
If women accept the role of spiritual master they should not consider that they will be socially independent.
5) “Actually, Dhruva Maharaja’s mother, Suniti, was his patha-pradarsaka-guru. Patha-pradarsaka-guru means “the guru, or the spiritual master, who shows the way.” Such a guru is sometimes called siksa-guru. Although Narada Muni was his diksa-guru (initiating spiritual master), Suniti, his mother, was the first who gave him instruction on how to achieve the favor of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. It is the duty of the siksa-guru or diksa-guru to instruct the disciple in the right way, and it depends on the disciple to execute the process. According to sastric injunctions, there is no difference between siksa-guru and diksa-guru, and generally the siksa-guru later on becomes the diksa-guru. Suniti, however, being a woman, and specifically his mother, could not become Dhruva Maharaja’s diksa-guru.” (Bhag. 4.12.32 purport)
This is the strongest statement against the possibility of female diksa-gurus. However, in itself, this statement is not conclusive, as we will see when we examine the positive evidence. The previous chapter of Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.11) presents the conversation of Svayambhuva Manu with Dhruva. This pastime of Dhruva was enacted during Svayambhuva Manu’s reign (Laghu-bhagavatamrta 3.54).
Positive Evidence (SAC comments in italics / essential points in bold italics)
1) Hari-bhakti-vilasa (1.211) quotes from Kularnava-tantra (15.97):
svapna-labdhe striya datte
mala-mantre ca try-aksare
ekaksare tatha mantre
siddhadin naiva sodhayet
“One should not test a mantra attained in a dream, a mantra given by a woman, a mala-mantra [mantra over 20 syllables] or mantras of one or three syllables for siddha and so on.” [Note: This is in connection with a discussion on how to test the effect of mantras by various means. The author writes about mantras not needing testing, later stating that krsna-mantras are exempt from testing.]
This verse points to the fact that, in the past, women sometimes gave mantras. One could then assume that women, on occasion, had acted as diksa-gurus.
2) “I want that all of my spiritual sons and daughters will inherit this title of Bhaktivedanta, so that the family transcendental diploma will continue through the generations. Those possessing the title of Bhaktivedanta will be allowed to initiate disciples. Maybe by 1975, all of my disciples will be allowed to initiate and increase the numbers of the generations. That is my program.” (Letter to Hamsaduta—Los Angeles 3 December, 1968)
Srila Prabhupada’s statement is general, but it does include female disciples. And it is spoken in reference to ISKCON.
3) “Therefore, we have begun Bhagavad-gita As It Is. Don’t try to become over spiritual master. Then you’ll spoil. Remain always a servant of your spiritual master and present the thing as you have heard. You’ll be spiritual master. This is secret. You should know it. Don’t try to become over-intelligent. That will spoil. Evam parampara- praptam imam rajarsayo viduh [Bg. 4.2]. So Caitanya Mahaprabhu says, amara ajnaya guru hana tara ei desa…yare dekha, tare kaha, ‘krsna’-upadesa [Cc. Madhya 7.128] Just see. It is very nice. You’ll find in Caitanya-caritamrta, now it is published. Caitanya Mahaprabhu says—He is the Supreme Lord, Krsna—He says, amara ajnaya. ‘Whatever I say, amara ajnaya, by My order, you become a spiritual master.’ Caitanya Mahaprabhu. So one may be very illiterate, no education, or no scholarship, may not be born in brahmana family, or may not be a sannyasi. There are so many qualification. But one may not have all these qualifications. He may be rascal number one, but still, he can become spiritual master. How? Amara ajnaya. As Krsna says, as Caitanya Mahaprabhu says, if you follow, then you become spiritual master. One may be rascal number one from material estimation, but if he simply strictly follows whatever is said by Caitanya Mahaprabhu or His representative spiritual master, then he becomes a guru.
“So it is not very difficult. One may not think that ‘I am not qualified to become guru.’ No, you are qualified if you follow strictly the parampara system. Then you are qualified. That’s all. Amara ajnaya guru hana… And what is the difficulty? Caitanya Mahaprabhu says, ‘Don’t feel any difficulty.’ Because as spiritual master, what you have to do? Yare dekha, tare kaha, ‘krsna’-upadesa [Cc. Madhya 7.128]. Whomever you meet, you simply speak to him the instruction which Krsna gives. What Krsna instruction gives? That is also very easy. What is that? Krsna says man-mana bhava mad-bhakto mad-yaji mam namaskuru [Bg. 18.65]. Krsna says ‘Just become My devotee, always think of Me, offer Me obeisances, and worship Me.’ So here is Krsna. If you simply think ‘Here is Krsna, Radha-Krsna Deity,’ you may be fool number, rascal number one. That doesn’t matter. But you are getting impression of this Radha-Krsna, think of Him: ‘Oh, how nicely Krsna is decorated.’ This much. No erudite scholarship. Simply. Krsna says, man-mana bhava mad-bhakto. Here is Deity. Worship Him nicely as it is regulated principle. Even you are not worshiping, simply think of Krsna, ‘Here is Radha-Krsna.’ Impression. What is the difficulty? As soon as you see Radha-Krsna, you get some impression. Think of that impression. Where is the difficulty? Man-mana bhava mad-bhakto. ‘Worship me.’ If you have got opportunity, worship. If you are initiated, worship here. Or you install Deity at home… Practical. Man-mana bhava mad-bhakto mad-yaji mam namaskuru [Bg. 18.65]. And if you cannot do anything, simply come and offer your obeisances: ‘My dear Lord Krsna, I am so poor, so unfortunate, I cannot do all these things, but I offer my humble obeisances unto Your lotus feet.’ That much also. If you do this, you become spiritual master.
“So, simply by accepting this principle, and even if you are not learned, illiterate, you are hearing so much from Bhagavad-gita, you simply repeat that. Simply repeat that. There is no question of becoming very learned scholar. God has given you this ear. Even if you are blind, you cannot read, you can hear. So krsna-upadesa, what is Krsna…? This is krsna-upadesa. And at last, Krsna says, sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja [Bg. 18.66]. So if you simply preach this cult, ‘My dear friend, my dear brother, you surrender to Krsna,’ you become spiritual master. You become spiritual master.…
“Immediately, touch his feet. Immediately, even if he’s enemy, he’ll be a friend. Even if he’s your enemy, it is so nice process. Take a grass on your mouth and immediately fall on his feet, padayor nipetya, and with folded hands, much flattering… All flattering words. Aham bravimi. So immediately he will agree, ‘Yes, what you say I’ll hear. I’ll hear.’ Immediately, convert to hear you at least. Just see how perfect process is. ‘Then what is your purpose, sir? Why you are becoming so humble, meek? “And now say.” ‘Yes sir, I’ll say.’ What is that? He sadhavah, ‘You are a great sadhu.’ Although he may be rascal number one. Still, you call him, he sadhavah. ‘Yes, I am sadhu, yes. What is your proposal?’ ‘Now kindly forget all nonsense, whatever you have learned. That’s all. I am flattering you because I want that you forget everything, all these yogis and this and that and that and meditation. Please kick out all these.’ ‘Then what I have to do?’ Caitanya-candra-carane kurutanuragam. Just adhere yourself to the lotus feet of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Then you become spiritual master. That’s all.”
“So I hope that all of you, men, women, boys and girls, become spiritual master, and follow this principle. Spiritual master, simply, sincerely, follow the principles and speak to the general public. Then Krsna immediately becomes your favorite. Krsna does not become your favorite; you become Krsna’s favorite. Krsna says in the Bhagavad-gita, na ca tasmad manusyesu kascin me priya-krttamah: ‘One who is doing this humble service of preaching work, Krsna consciousness, nobody is dearer than him to Me.’ So if you want to become recognized by Krsna very quickly, you take up this process of becoming spiritual master, present the Bhagavad-gita as it is. Your life is perfect. Thank you very much.”
(Vyasa-puja Lecture—London, August 22, 1973)
It is somewhat significant that this is a Vyasa-puja lecture in which the principle of disciplic succession is naturally being addressed by Srila Prabhupada. Prabhupada specifically says, “…all of you, men, women, boys and girls, become spiritual master.”
4) Woman: Svamiji, would you say something about the place of women in your movement?
Prabhupada: There is no distinction between man and woman. That is clearly said in the Bhagavad-gita. Mam hi partha vyapasritya ye ’pi syuh papa-yonayah / striyo sudras tatha vaisyah. The first is mentioned, striyah. Striyah sudras tatha vaisyah. These classes are understood to be less intelligent—woman, sudra, and the vaisyas. But Krsna says, “No, even for them it is open.” Because in the spiritual platform there is no such distinction, man, woman, or black, white, or big or small. No. Everyone is spirit soul. Panditah sama-darsinah [Bg. 5.18]. Vidya-vinaya-sampanne brahmane gavi hastini suni caiva sva-pake ca panditah [Bg. 5.18], one who is actually learned, he is sama-darsinah. He does not make any distinction. But so far our material body is concerned, there must be some distinction for keeping the society in order.
Woman: The women could become panditas, then.
Prabhupada: Oh, yes. Te ’pi yanti param gatim. Not only come, she can also attain perfection. There is no such restriction. Krsna said.
Woman: Do you have any panditas in the Western movement?
Prabhupada: There are so many Western woman, girls, in our society. They are chanting, dancing, taking to Krsna consciousness. Of course, because superficially, bodily, there is some distinction, so we keep women separately from men, that’s all. Otherwise, the rights are the same.
Prof. O’Connell: Is it possible, Svamiji, for a woman to be a guru in the line of disciplic succession?
Prabhupada: Yes. Jahnava Devi was—Nityananda’s wife. She became. If she is able to go to the highest perfection of life, why it is not possible to become guru? But, not so many. Actually one who has attained the perfection, she can become guru. But man or woman, unless one has attained the perfection…. Yei krsna-tattva-vetta sei guru haya [Cc. Madhya 8.128]. The qualification of guru is that he must be fully cognizant of the science of Krsna. Then he or she can become guru. Yei krsna-tattva-vetta, sei guru haya. [break] In our material world, is it any prohibition that woman cannot become professor? If she is qualified, she can become professor. What is the wrong there? She must be qualified. That is the position. So similarly, if the woman understands Krsna consciousness perfectly, she can become guru.
Indian man: Well, to understand Krsna consciousness, do you not require adhikara?
Prabhupada: Adhikara means he must agree to understand. That is adhikara. But we do not agree. That is our fault. (Interview with Professors O’Connell, Motilal and Shivaram—June 18, 1976, Toronto)
Srila Prabhupada directly addresses the issue of a woman’s qualification to be guru, and he says that if she meets the standard qualification mentioned in the sastra, then she is qualified. Prabhupada specifically says that “he or she” can become guru if they meet the standard qualification. There is no mention of any special qualification for women. There is mention, however, that although men and women are equal according to spiritual identity, women may not be allowed to associate with men in the temple. Although as spirit souls they may be qualified, still, because of the bodily difference, there is some separation.
He adds, “not so many.” That could be because of two reasons: (1) the qualification for men and women is the same [which is clearly stated], but not so many women as men can attain that qualification, or (2) women and men can both attain the qualification in fairly even numbers, but there are other factors that cause women to become gurus in lesser numbers. Either way, there is no higher level of qualification required for women as compared to men.
Someone may argue that here Srila Prabhupada is conversing with secular scholars and is thus speaking somewhat diplomatically to pacify them. But that was not his habit. He spoke the truth to whomever he met—scholars, scientists or reporters. In terms of women’s issues particularly, he was very direct and had no fear of public opinion, as can be seen in his many conversations. It should also be mentioned that two Indian professors were present during this conversation. Therefore it could be concluded that Srila Prabhupada was not considering a different approach among Indians.
Finally, in this conversation, Prabhupada also provides a sastric reference and employs systematic reasoning with a logical analogy to support his statement. Therefore this statement should be accepted as significant evidence.
5) Prabhupada: So a crazy man’s statement is not accepted. Child’s statement, crazy man’s statement, unauthorized person’s statement, blind man’s statement, we cannot accept.
Atreya Rsi: A woman’s statement?
Atreya Rsi: A woman’s…
Prabhupada: If a woman is perfect in Krsna consciousness… Just like Jahnava Devi, Lord Nityananda’s wife, she was acarya. She was acarya. She was controlling the whole Vaisnava community.
Atreya Rsi: Lord Nityananda?
Prabhupada: Wife. Jahnava Devi. She was controlling the whole Gaudiya Vaisnava community.
Atreya Rsi: Do you have references about that in any of your books, Srila Prabhupada?
Prabhupada: I don’t think. But there are many acaryas. Maybe somewhere I might have mentioned. It is not that woman cannot be acarya. Generally, they do not become. In very special case. But Jahnava Devi was accepted as, but she did not declare.
Women can be acaryas, but it is rare—only in special cases. One meaning of this statement could be that not many women have been qualified to become an acarya. Another may be that even though many women were qualified, still very few have assumed the service of initiating disciples for other reasons, e.g. social reasons. In context, the comment, “But there are many acaryas” indicates that there were many female gurus. The conversation continues.
Atreya Rsi: Women today…, there is a very popular topic amongst women. They speak of liberation. And their desire to be liberated is sane, but they do not understand. And they object very strongly… I’ve spoken to some of these so-called liberated women, and they object strongly to Krsna consciousness, because they think we discriminate against women. So I have been taking advantage of opportunities to describe to them that the only means to liberation for men and woman is through Krsna consciousness.
Prabhupada: Krsna does not make any discrimination. Krsna does not make. Whatever difference is there, it is bodily difference. But as soul, there is equality. So whatever difference we make, that is bodily difference. So when one is above the bodily concept of life, there is no difference. Why woman? Even cats and dogs. Woman is human being. Even cats and dogs, they have got the same spirit soul. So a learned scholar will see from the spiritual platform. Then there is equality. (Room Conversation: 29 June 1972 San Diego)
Equality is based on the soul being equal. That is the spiritual platform. Here Prabhupada repeats the idea that there is no difference between genders or even between different species when one is above the bodily concept.
6) kiba vipra, kiba nyasi, sudra kene naya / yei krsna-tattva-vetta, sei ‘guru’ haya
“Whether one is a brahmana, a sannyasi or a sudra—regardless of what he is—he can become a spiritual master if he knows the science of Krsna.” [Caitanya-caritamrta Madhya 8.128]
“This verse is very important to the Krsna consciousness movement. In his Amrta-pravaha-bhasya, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura explains that one should not think that because Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu was born a brahmana and was situated in the topmost spiritual order as a sannyasi, it was improper for Him to receive instructions from Srila Ramananda Raya, who belonged to the sudra caste. To clarify this matter, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu informed Ramananda Raya that knowledge of Krsna consciousness is more important than caste. In the system of varnasrama-dharma there are various duties for the brahmanas, ksatriyas, vaisyas and sudras. Actually the brahmana is supposed to be the spiritual master of all other varnas, or classes, but as far as Krsna consciousness is concerned, everyone is capable of becoming a spiritual master because knowledge in Krsna consciousness is on the platform of the spirit soul. To spread Krsna consciousness, one need only be cognizant of the science of the spirit soul. It does not matter whether one is a brahmana, ksatriya, vaisya, sudra, sannyasi, grhastha or whatever. If one simply understands this science, he can become a spiritual master.
“It is stated in the Hari-bhakti-vilasa that one should not accept initiation from a person who is not in the brahminical order if there is a fit person in the brahminical order present. This instruction is meant for those who are overly dependent on the mundane social order and is suitable for those who want to remain in mundane life.
If one understands the truth of Krsna consciousness and seriously desires to attain transcendental knowledge for the perfection of life, he can accept a spiritual master from any social status, provided the spiritual master is fully conversant with the science of Krsna. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura also states that although one is situated as a brahmana, ksatriya, vaisya, sudra, brahmacari, vanaprastha, grhastha or sannyasi, if he is conversant in the science of Krsna he can become a spiritual master as vartma-pradarsaka-guru, diksa-guru or siksa-guru. The spiritual master who first gives information about spiritual life is called the vartma-pradarsaka-guru, the spiritual master who initiates according to the regulations of the sastras is called the diksa-guru, and the spiritual master who gives instructions for elevation is called the siksa-guru. Factually the qualifications of a spiritual master depend on his knowledge of the science of Krsna. It does not matter whether he is a brahmana, ksatriya, sannyasi or Sudra.
“If one becomes a guru, he is automatically a brahmana. Sometimes a caste guru says that ye krsna-tattva-vetta, sei guru haya means that one who is not a brahmana may become a siksa-guru or a vartma-pradarsaka-guru but not an initiator guru. According to such caste gurus, birth and family ties are considered foremost. However, the hereditary consideration is not acceptable to Vaisnavas. The word guru is equally applicable to the vartma-pradarsaka-guru, siksa-guru and diksa-guru. Unless we accept the principle enunciated by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, this Krsna consciousness movement cannot spread all over the world.” [Caitanya-caritamrta Madhya 8.128 verse & purport]
This is only one of many places wherein Srila Prabhupada presents the proper vision of our philosophy on the topic of eligibility to become a Vaisnava guru: there cannot be placed any material prohibition on the post of guru—it is transcendental being based on one’s devotion. In his purport he focuses on varnasrama considerations, but he quoted this verse in his conversation with Prof. O’Connell, indicating that gender is also a consideration to be discarded in judging a guru’s eligibility.
Srila Prabhupada also explains that there are instructions in Vaisnava literature for those who are overly dependent on mundane social order. But there are higher level instructions for those with a deeper understanding: “…he can accept a spiritual master from any social status, provided the spiritual master is fully conversant with the science of Krsna.” He specifically states that this principle applies to all gurus including diksa-gurus.
7) Devotee: Can women become guru?
B.R. Sridhara Maharaja: Yes, if he [sic] sincerely feels that he can help others, he may be. There are so many. Jahnava Devi, wife of Nityananda Prabhu, she began extensively this spiritual movement. And there are many others.
Devotee: Must you be in the renounced order of life?
B.R. Sridhara Maharaja: Of course somewhat, a grhastha, then grhastha she may initiate grhasthas. But generally it is not found that the ladies take the robe of renunciation. That is red cloth or something. But they may have (the) respect even of the sannyasis, but they remain as grhasthas and may continue grhastha-sisya. (1981 Conversation with Sripada BR Sridhara Maharaja)
And on another occasion…
B.R. Sridhara Maharaja: But whether the lady acarya should be appointed or not, that may come in future. Whether a lady devotee for the facility to propagate amongst the ladies, whether such qualified lady acarya should be accepted or not, that may be a question of controversy. But I think that, for the sincere thinking person, wherever there is Krsna consciousness, there is purity. And wherever the sincere urge for propagation, the sanction must be there. That should be the fair field. Here also previously Jahnava Devi and others, Thakurani, they did that sort of function of the acarya.
Devotee: So there were some lady acaryas.
B.R. Sridhara Maharaja: Yes, very rare. The number can be counted on fingers, lady acaryas. (1981 Conversation with Sripada BR Sridhara Maharaja)
Srila Prabhupada’s respected Godbrother also says that women may become gurus, but it is very rare. His only stipulation is that they cannot wear sannyasi garb and that they would accept only grhastha disciples.
8 ) “A woman’s nature has been particularly well studied by Kasyapa Muni. Women are self-interested by nature, and therefore they should be protected by all means so that their natural inclination to be too self-interested will not be manifested. Women need to be protected by men. A woman should be cared for by her father in her childhood, by her husband in her youth and by her grown sons in her old age. This is the injunction of Manu, who says that a woman should not be given independence at any stage. Women must be cared for so that they will not be free to manifest their natural tendency for gross selfishness. There have been many cases, even in the present day, in which women have killed their husbands to take advantage of their insurance policies. This is not a criticism of women but a practical study of their nature.”
Women on the bodily platform are selfish and should therefore be protected not only from lusty male predators but from their own lower natures as well. This is clear. The rest of the purport below, however, makes an important distinction.
“Such natural instincts of a woman or a man are manifested only in the bodily conception of life. When either a man or a woman is advanced in spiritual consciousness, the bodily conception of life practically vanishes.”
(Bhag. 6.18.42 purport)
When the bodily concept of life vanishes, the material qualities of one’s lower nature are transcended. The conclusion must be, therefore, that if a female devotee is actually advanced, above the bodily platform, she may assume the post of a spiritual master.
Here is a suggestion in relation to the above point: The bodily concept of life is transcended, along with the modes of nature, at the stage of bhava-bhakti. But at the level of nistha the residual anarthas are only remnants that not longer obstruct one’s progress (See Madhurya-kadambini, chapter 4). Therefore, we recommend that at least the symptoms of nistha should be seen in diksa-guru candidates, whether male or female.
9) Historical Examples of Female Gaudiya Diksa-gurus
a) Sita Thakurani—The wife of Advaita Prabhu. According to the Prema-vilasa (vilasa 24) of Nityananda Dasa, Sita Thakurani gave diksa (krsna-mantra) to her two servants Nandini and Jangali. The vaikuntha-svarupas of Nandini and Jangali are the well-known gatekeepers Jaya and Vijaya (Gaura-ganoddeSa-dipika text 89). Their disciple-ship to Sitadevi, along with other interesting facts, is corroborated in the well-known and respected compilation named Gaudiya-vaisnava abhidhana and in the Sita-caritra by Lokanatha Dasa.
b) Jahnava Thakurani – The wife of Nityananda Prabhu. Jahnava Thakurani became one of the greatest leaders of our tradition in its second generation. Virabhadra and Ramacandra, the sons (biological and adopted respectively) of Nityananda Prabhu, were two of the most famous among her initiated disciples.
“Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura writes in his Anubhasya, ‘Virabhadra Gosani was the direct son of Srila Nityananda Prabhu and a disciple of Jahnava Devi.’” (Caitanya-caritamrta Adi-lila 11.8 purport)
“Yadunandana Acarya’s wife, Laksmi, was a very humble and submissive lady. She had two beautiful daughters named Srimati and Narayani. By the arrangement of Sri ISvari (Jahnava Devi), these two girls became the fortunate wives of Viracandra Prabhu. On the day of the wedding, Yadunandana took initiation from Viracandra, and Sri Jahnava happily accepted Srimati and Narayani as her disciples.” (Bhakti-ratnakara, ch. 13)
She is also confirmed as a diksa-guru both in the Gaudiya-vaisnava abhidhana (pg. 1246-47) and in the Prema-vilasa of Nityananda Dasa (vilasas 15 & 20).
c) Hemalata Thakurani – The eldest daughter of Srinivasa Acarya. Hemalata Thakurani, a contemporary of Jahnava, was one of the prominent leaders of the tradition at her time. Among her disciples, Yadunandana, the author of Karnananda, is particularly well-known (see Karnananda [ch.2 &3] and the introduction [pg 12] to Krsna-karnamrta by Sambidananda Das Ph.D). She also had a wayward disciple named Rupa Kaviraja. (see Gaudiya-vaisnava abhidhana pg. 1422)
“Now the disciples of Sri Hemalata shall be described. Sri Suvala Chandra Thakura, and his nephew Sri Gokula Chakravarti were her disciples. Sri Radhavallava Thakura from Mandala village, Sri Vallavadasa of the Gosvami family, and Yadunandana Vaidya dasa of Malihati village were all disciples of Sri Isvari. Kanurama Chakravarti and his two servants Darpanayana and Candi, Ramacarana, Madhu Miswas, and Radha Kanta Vaidya were other disciples of Hemalata. Jagadisa Kaviraja and his follower, who was the brother of Radhavallabh Kaviraja were initiated by Hemalata.” (Karnananda, ch.2, last paragraph)
“One day my spiritual master, Sri Hemalata, revealed the glories of Ramacandra to me.” “I shall describe another episode which I heard from my guru, Sri Isvari Hemalata.” (Karnananda, ch.3)
d) Gauranga-priya Devi – The second wife and disciple of Srinivasa Acarya (Gaudiya-vaisnava abhidhana pg. 1224) She was from a Cakravarti brahmana family, her father being Raghunatha Cakravarti, a resident of West Gopalapura. She initiated a number of disciples, one being Gurucarana Dasa, who wrote a book at her behest called Premamrta which is based on the Prema-vilasa (Gaudiya-vaisnava abhidhana pg. 1203).
“Srinivasa Acarya’s first wife, Srimati ISvari Thakurani, was a highly devotional lady. Gauranga-priya, his second wife, also possessed exalted devotional qualities. In due course of time many persons became disciples of Srinivasa Acarya and his wives.”(Karnananda, ch.2)
e) Gangamata Gosvamini – A disciple of Haridasa Pandita Gosvami, the sevaite of Govindaji mentioned in Sri Caitanya-caritamrta. Among others, King Mukundadeva of Jagannatha Puri and a number of Lord Jagannatha’s sevaites received diksa from her. She was also an eloquent speaker and explained Srimad-Bhagavatam to large audiences. Gangamata Gosvamini’s case is further confirmation that a woman can be a guru in a bona fide Gaudiya Vaisnava line. At least up to her point in the line, the line was bona fide because her guru is confirmed by Srila Krsnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami in the Caitanya-caritamrta (Adi 8.60). Her acceptance of disciples is confirmed in Gaudiya-vaisnava abhidhana (pgs. 1197-98) and by the present day mahanta, Balarama Das Gosvami, at the Gangamata Gosvamini Matha in Puri.
Should We Follow Such Examples?
In Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krsna says yad yad acarati sresthas tat tad evetaro janah / sa yat pramanam kurute lokas tad anuvartate. The people in general follow the example set by great personalities. Lord Krsna gave this as a reason why He Himself followed the laws of religion, because if He did not, others would follow His example. In this way, one might say that Lord Krsna functioned as an acarya, one who teaches by His own example. But in some cases, it is not correct for an ordinary person to follow the example of the Supreme Lord, as in His dancing with the gopis. The same is true of the great Vaisnavas: Sometimes their behavior is meant to be followed by ordinary persons, and sometimes not. So how do we know which actions of the Supreme Lord and great devotees are to be followed by us and which actions are not to be followed?
For example, in the few well-documented cases offered above for female gurus in Gaudiya Vaisnavism, we have presented personalities such as Jahnava Devi, the wife of Lord Nityananda. Is her becoming a guru a case to be followed as exemplary, or a case not to be imitated by us? One guide is the general scriptural warning to follow the instructions of the Lord and great devotees instead of imitating their activities. That should make us cautious.
Another guide is the indications from sadhu and guru. For example, Srila Prabhupada was asked by a professor if women could become gurus in our movement. Srila Prabhupada answered that they could, and he provided Jahnava Devi as an example. Because our founder-acarya clearly indicated that the behavior of Jahnava Devi could be a guide for us on the question of whether or not women can become gurus in ISKCON, it is not wrong for us to follow that indication.
We have not found any statement by Srila Prabhupada that the example of Jahnava Devi is not exemplary. Therefore we can take her example as one of the cases in which it is proper to follow the example. But Srila Prabhupada also gave some cautionary remarks in this connection, indicating that it was rare for women to become gurus, and that should also be taken into account.
Weighing the Evidence and Concluding
The one significant negative statement—“Suniti, however, being a woman, and specifically his mother, could not become Dhruva Maharaja’s diksa-guru.” (Bhag. 4.12.32 purport)—can be interpreted differently. One possible interpretation is that women cannot initiate male devotees, but could do so for female devotees. Another could be that women can initiate all others except their own offspring. This second interpretation could be supported by the fact that Lord Nityananda’s second wife, Sri Vasudha Devi, did not initiate her own son, Viracandra, but Sri Jahnava Devi did so. In any case, Srila Prabhupada is referring to an incident at a specific time in the distant past, and his other statements dealing with the present time (conversations with Professor O’Connell or with Atreya Rsi Dasa), and specifically within ISKCON, are more valuable as pramanas in this discussion.
Additionally, the vaidika system was operating during the Satya-yuga. Under that system, women did not generally receive initiation. Therefore, logically, they also could not give it. Under the more recent pancaratrika system, however, qualified women can accept and offer initiation.
We have also presented statements, on the one hand, demanding the social dependency and protection of women and, on the other, statements declaring that in spiritual matters such considerations may be transcended.
When we look at all of Srila Prabhupada’s statements we see that he had the conception of female gurus in the future, i.e. if they could meet the standard, and that there were female gurus in the past whom Srila Prabhupada cited as evidence for his position. But he did say that they were rare, and so we should follow that indication.
Weighing the philosophical evidence, the SAC team concludes that female devotees, if qualified, should be allowed to give initiation in ISKCON.
It seems unsupportable on the basis of guru, sadhu and sastra to have a policy that asserts that there can never be female gurus in ISKCON. The GBC, however, may choose to not have female gurus at present on the basis of time, place and circumstance or cultural considerations. But then there would have to be some justification as to why this kind of policy should be necessary now.
If the GBC consensus is to go forward with female gurus in ISKCON, then we suggest relative prerequisites to be considered. The following prerequisites take social concerns into account:
Relative Prerequisites and Support
Since it is difficult to ascertain someone’s level of bhakti, and to ensure stability, it may be considered prudent by the GBC to place some relative prerequisites, not absolute ones (otherwise it would violate the kiba-vipra verse [Cc Madhya 8.128]), on female guru candidates in ISKCON. Here are a few humble suggestions:
a) The Vaisnavi should normally be of a certain age (e.g. fifty or more).
b) The Vaisnavi should normally have performed a minimum number of years of sadhana-bhakti. (e.g. twenty-five or thirty years)
c) The Vaisnavi should normally have some family support, e.g. husband, adult son or daughter or adult son-in-law or daughter-in-law, and a residential base to ensure her psycho-social stability. This suggested proviso corresponds to the many recommendations and warnings of women becoming independent given in dharma-sastras.
d) The Vaisnavi should normally have spiritual support in the form of at least one or more siksa-gurus or senior mentors from which she can take assistance.
Why should relative conditions be placed on female guru candidates?
Women have a different psycho-physical nature than men. Therefore, while still in the sadhana stages of bhakti, a female-guru candidate would do well to have some relative support. Furthermore, it is rare to find examples of their taking the role of guru. This is clearly stated by Srila Prabhupada and others in the above cited conversations. These relative prerequisites are simple measures to safeguard and support future female gurus without burdening prospective candidates with unnecessary bureaucracy.