The Place of Women in the Bhakti Movement

Jahnava Mata
Jahnava Mata

Question:  I personally appreciate the role of women within the bhakti movement in general and within the Vaiṣṇavism in particular. But sometimes I wonder where is the living spirit of Jāhnavā Mātā, now? Currently, who is the most representative gurvī in Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism?

Answer: Why limit this question only to Jāhnavā Mātā? Where is the living spirit of Nityananda? Give me a living example.

Go and see in the temple who is doing more service, the women or the men. There you will see the living spirit of Jāhnavā Mātā.

Question: I don’t think there is any Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava branch striving to investigate, remember or revive her legacy.  How does the figure of a sublime female leader disappear without leaving clear traces of her passage through this world? Is it fate that Vaiṣṇavism will be marked only by the fevered male preaching from now on?

Is there any female ācārya in the bābājī-paramparā? How many gurvīs exist in its disciplic succession? Throughout the world, the leadership of religious institutions almost always oozes androgens. It is a harsh reality.

Answer: In our own disciplic succession there are four woman acaryas. Women usually don’t take to the renounced order of life because it is not very suitable for their psychology. The nature of men and women is different. After the Women’s Liberation movement, both men and women want to erase this distinction. This is what they think is the meaning of equality. However equality is not at the level of body and mind. Obviously the male body and mind are different from the female. I am sure you know that the body is the gross manifestation of the subtle mind.

There is no restriction for a male or female to attain the ultimate goal of life, but one must use the mind-body complex one has at present. This is one of the essential teachings of BG which people often miss.

There is no question whether women become guru or not, or whether they have the adhikara to become a pure devotee of the Lord.

Somehow at present we think that if a woman does the same as a man and competes with a man, she is equal to him. I consider this as the basic flaw in the woman liberation movement. I agree that when it comes to certain legal issues, such as voting rights or getting the same salary for the same job, there should be equality in that. But because men join the army, should women also do that? Will that be the emancipation of women? To me that is a misconception. In the history there may be examples of some very chivalrous ladies who fought wars, leading big armies, but that is not suitable to the nature of most women.

Similarly, there may be examples of women becoming great acaryas, having disciples, but it is not really the nature of a prototype woman. At present women may be more like men because of the idea of competing with men in every field, and thus they may also desire to be acaryas, but then they also have to have the requisite qualification for that.

In India, at present there are many female gurus. Amritananda Mayi is one well-known example. So in Gaudiya Vaishnavism also, if there is some illustrious woman, no one should oppose her. In Vrindavan there are many ladies who are giving Bhagavata kathas like any man and they are very popular. Even young girls are taking to this profession. One example is Devi Citralekha. She is a young girl in her teens and has a big following. In fact at present her Bhagavat saptaha is going on in Foglashrama in Vrindavan.

Another example is Sadhvi Ritambara, who has probably the biggest ashram in the Vrindavan area, called Vatsalya-grama.

In the past there were not so many examples, so you have only quoted two names.  Probably there are more now than at that time.


Question: Is celibacy also meant for Women?

woman with tulasi plantAnswer: Celibacy is called brahmacarya in Sanskrit. Originally the word refers to a student who studies the Vedas under the guidance of a guru. During the study period, one was expected not to have any sexual relation, because it is a distraction for the mind, and such distraction makes the mind incapable of understanding. Originally, boys and girls both studied the Veda together. There is a verse which says,

pura kalpe tu narinām maunji bandhanam isyate,

adyapanam ca vedanam savitri vacanam tatha

Harita Smrti

This means women also lived like brahmacari boys and studied the Vedas, but later on, this practice was stopped and girl stayed at home and studied there. The exact reason why this changed is not known, but my guess is that it is probably related to the curse of Indra. In any case, a girl, whether she studied at the gurukula or remained at home, was expected to remain celibate like the brahmacari students. This is also understood from the following statement of the Atharvaveda 5.18:

brahmacaryena kanya yuvanam vindate pathim

“An unmarried celibate girl seeks a young husband.” After the girl was married, she was expected to have sexual relationship only with the husband and this was also considered as being brahmacari, or celibate. There is a very popular verse in India,

ahalya draupadi sita tara mandodari tatha

pancha kanya smaret nityam mahapathaka nasinīḥ

“One should remember every day the five virgins, namely Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara, and Mandodary. Remembering them destroys one’s sins.”

All the five women were married, in fact Draupadi had five husbands, but they had been referred to here as virgin, kanya, because they were chaste wives.

Ayurveda says there are three pillars of heath, upastambha, according to Caraka Samhita, namely food, sleep, and celibacy. While mentioning these three, Caraka Samhita does not say that this is only for men and not for women, nor does it say that a woman’s health only depends on the first two. Moreover, if men are supposed to be celibate and not women, with whom should they have sex? I don’t think I want to speculate on this.

4 thoughts on “The Place of Women in the Bhakti Movement”

  1. 4th anga of bhakti(sAdhu-vartmAnuvartanam) is to follow the footsteps of previous acharyas. Immediately we think of someone with a beard and vyasAsana. Some crowd puller 🙂

    Typically in a gaudiya family the elders would play this role (they are the previous acharyas!) and youngsters/kids would learn the tradition , etiquette , culture , protocols effortlessly living in the family as they grow up.The kids learn who can do what! This family setup is on the decline and probably not a common thing in gaudiyas.

    Thus we see repeated struggle in knowing what is the tradition -who can do what.! Everyone has their own opinion mostly from books or hearsay!

    Also,it is external people who come to learn and some are westerners who come from a totally different setup and psychology.

    For an inquisitive indian, the questions are half answered until he is confused by a westerner’s perspective. Then everything becomes bizarre.

    The fault is on nobody. The questions are genuine as much as they lack a typical upbringing.Questions must be asked. This is more of a cultural shock than anything siddhantic. We must agree that ‘learning of sastra’ gets delayed until ones mind becomes peaceful/convinced about these aspects. Without being convinced on the application side, sastric knowledge will remain indigestible.Sometimes they becomes dangerous.Even if we agree rasa tattva is topmost , we still have reservations in accepting it , if we hear them say ‘women are less intelligent’.

    Philosophies and traditions never change. They are never upgraded . They are never to be taken to a different level. A person who has studied dharma sastra would know that there are instructions for all kinds of people in all walks of life.One need not upgrade them to a new version. Dharma sastras are vast for this purpose- to explain rules for each kind of performer. Otherwise purpose is one – serving God. Details vary as per the performers body / society / family / place.With all these voluminous text , still the confusion will remain until one sees a living person with family following this religion.

    May be Radharaman goswami people are grihasthas and also function as gurus.I do not know. However the struggle to understand the role of women is evident and it might be because of prominent unmarried gurus in this sampradaya.

    Until there is a situation where guru is a grihastha with wife, sons and daugthers ,living in a society, interacting with all kinds of people , it will be tough for a seeker to know what role women has , who can do what, what are the typical situation and what are exceptions.

    Ofcourse we have an escape route out of all these struggles . Dont we say – these information are not directly bhakti and hence does not matter! Just do what you want, but chant and do some seva.


  2. In the preindustrial Western family, individual roles were clearly defined; and elders modeled the behavior and religious values. Perhaps in a slightly similar manner like the current “declining” gauḍīya family. However, the global postmodern deterioration, is not affecting also to the rāmānujis and rāmānandis families?

    In any case, probably your suggestion is right: if the concepts of sādhu/guru/ācārya are highlighted within collectivistic families, our society would be very different. And the role of women would be much clearer.

    “Philosophies and traditions never change”. Neither Caitanya nor Rāmānuja were sheeps enclosed in a sheepfold; both are recognized as reformers. If they were present, certainly would extend our view about strī-svabhāva and strī-dharma.

    1. Vayu ji:

      I am unable to understand what you have written. Also in case you wish to have a discussion , I am afraid if this is a right place to have back and forth discussions.

      On this topic , my opinion is that it is much easier to understand the role of women by going to homes where gaudiya tradition is followed and by seeing the roles women play. Are those household women not women? or Are those roles, not roles in our eyes?

      If we focus on ashrams/mutts/hi-profile swamis , we will not get an answer! The people in these mutts have already reaped(still reaping) the benefits from roles played by women directly or indirectly. Either they are what they are today because of a women in their home or because of their donors who are taken care by a women in their home.Whether they recognize this fact is a different matter.

      As per sanatana dharma role of women is inseparable for any one in any part of varna/ashrama, to achieve spiritual goals. A brahmachari needs a women from childhood times. A grihasthas needs a women for daily sadhana, a vanaprastha needs a women and a sanyasi too needs a women for bhiksha. To eat self cooked food under the name of being celibate/biskhu is a farce or at best a ‘temporary’ exception during emergency situations.

      In fact, without women, we would not have had gurus, swamis, preachers.

  3. Mr. Scooty, thanks for your patience and clear ideas. Yes, it is not a place for discussion.

    The role traditionally assigned [by men] to women is valuable but no limiting. And if there is something anachronistic or inappropriate, women indoubtely will express their disagreement.

    Let us hope it will be not like the Gulabī Gang.


Comments are closed.