Found in Sanga, Sanga 2002.

Women and Sannyasa

December 16th, 2002 | No Comments

Q. From the Vedic point of view, if a husband beats his wife and drinks can she divorce him?

A. If a husband abuses his wife and this cannot be resolved, she should not remain with him. Domestic violence is not uncommon in today’s society, and if it persists, a Hindu woman can remarry. Overall we have to realize that we are not living in ancient Vedic society, and thus we have to adjust accordingly. We should not misconstrue details appropriate for that society to be principles that are applicable at all times.

Q. Can you please explain the role of martial arts in modern society and what their purpose was in the Vedic culture? Is practicing martial arts unfavorable for Krishna consciousness?

A. Martial arts are primarily for self-defense. Although they have nothing to do with the sadhana of Gaudiya Vaisnavism, if one is interested in such arts, one can practice them without hindering one’s spiritual practice. In time, with serious spiritual practice, one’s interest in martial arts should dissolve, as is the case with all interests other than those directly concerned with krishnanusilanam, the direct culture of Krishna consciousness.

Q. I would like to know the Vaisnava attitude about hatha-yoga.

A. Hatha-yoga is a separate discipline from bhakti-yoga. However, inasmuch as a sadhaka practices an exercise regime in his daily life for the sake of health, hatha-yoga can be adopted for the same purpose without any unfavorable results.

Q. In which order would you recommend a student to take up study of the works of Adi Sankara?

A. Being a Vaisnava, I would recommend that you study his final words first: bhaja govindam, bhaja govindam, bhaja govindam mudha mate, samprapti sannihite kale nahi nahi raksati dukrnyakarine, “O fools, just worship Govinda, worship Govinda, worship Govinda. Your rules of grammar and word jugglery will not protect you at the time of death.”

Q. In Judaic religion, god/lord is Yahweh, a generalist deity. God can also be El up until Yahweh and El are merged. In Christianity, god is Yahweh or Yahweh/Jesus. In Hinduism, is there one supreme deity or chief god as El was in Canaan and elsewhere, chief god over other gods, or are all gods deemed equal?

A. In consideration of God’s capacity to reciprocate in love, Krishna is the Supreme God of Hinduism. Other than love, what else is more important, especially for human society? Krishna is also known by the epithet “Govinda,” which indicates that he is the chief of the chief of the Hindu Gods (Indra).

Q. In a previous issue of Sanga you mentioned it is important that we develop a serving ego. I like your ability to elucidate things, so I would like to ask: how is a devotee’s serving ego different from others’ serving ego? There are butlers, servants, etc. who have excellent serving egos, but we place them at the bottom of the social hierarchy, which must show something about the psychological value of such an ego. But for a devotee that is a desired asset. So what is its special characteristic?

A. Its special characteristic is that it is centered on Krishna, which makes a world of difference.

Q. I find it difficult to chant 16 rounds of japa daily. In order to do so I have to speed through my chanting and I feel this takes away from the purity and prayerful manner that is advised for chanting. I feel better when I chant 8 to 10 slower rounds of japa in a very prayerful mood and focus attentively on the mantra with my heart. Isn’t chanting for quality rather than quantity more acceptable? It still takes me roughly the same length of time to chant 10 rounds slowly, as to chant 16 rounds quickly. Is chanting less rounds in this way regarded as an impediment in one’s sadhana if one desires to become an initiated devotee of Krishna?

A. The number of rounds of japa that any particular disciple chants is determined by the instruction given by his guru at the time of initiation. In general Mahaprabhu Sri Caitanya asked his followers to chant 64 rounds of japa of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. However, about this Pujyapada Sridhara Maharaja said the following:

“Although Mahaprabhu has advised us to chant one hundred thousand names, or sixty-four rounds daily, that is a provincial saying. What is really all-important is the spirit of service.”

When asked about a leading devotee who was not chanting the 16 rounds his Gurudeva instructed him to chant, he replied: “This is not sufficient criteria to be considered a deviation. Mahaprabhu has advised all of us to chant at least 64 rounds. Even better than a lakh (100,000) is three lakh names. But that is not possible because of overwhelming practical devotional service; it’s not possible. So the question that I am asking is, ‘Why has he reduced the number of rounds? Is it because of negligence or apathy?’ Maybe he has turned his attention more towards other practical services. With what depth of sincerity and intensity is that being executed? That must be measured. All of this has to be taken into consideration.”

He also advised in this connection: “We should not hurry, we should not hurry.”

Therefore, your policy of concentrating on the quality of your japa is a good one, even if as a result of this you chant fewer rounds. Practice humility and tolerance. Show respect to all and expect no honor for yourself. This is also Sriman Mahaprabhu’s advice to those seeking to advance beyond counting beads to actual chanting—kirtaniya sada harih.

Q. Why aren’t women allowed to take sannyasa? If women are not these bodies and Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy teaches that all souls are equal and get an equal opportunity to go back to Krishna, then why is there a restriction against women taking sannyasa? This restriction indicates to me that women are not being given the same opportunity as men for full spiritual advancement. In other spiritual societies women are given sannyasa, so why is it different in Gaudiya Vaisnavism? When I asked this question of other devotees, the answer I received was that women are not given sannyasa because they are supposed to be protected. However, I am aware that devotee women are not always protected and sometimes are even sent out alone to preach in foreign countries, including Africa. Please enlighten me on this matter.

A. The heart of Vaisnava sannyasa is renouncing material life and embracing the service of Sri Krishna. This is open to both men and women. Whereas the formality of accepting the renounced order of sannyasa has largely been restricted to men in consideration of socioreligious concerns. However, as circumstances change and these concerns are no longer relevant, I see no reason why women should be barred from accepting sannyasa.

In our times the relevance of anyone formally accepting sannyasa is questionable in terms of how it is perceived by the public. Furthermore, the tendency to equate the formal acceptance of sannyasa with spiritual advancement has caused many devotees to aspire for the formality of sannyasa rather than the substance of the order.

Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu took the renounced order of life for the sake of preaching. At that time sannyasis were respected in Indian society, and thus Mahaprabhu took advantage of this in order to bring attention to his message. Similarly, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura instituted Vaisnava sannyasa in his lineage nearly a century ago. Among other reasons, he did this for the purpose of bringing dignity to the Gaudiya lineage in the eyes of the masses, who, due to the influence of the Advaitins and smarta brahmanas, over-identified the formal order of sannyasa with spiritual advancement and believed that one must be born in a brahmana family and then take sannyasa in order to attain liberation.

In his lineage, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta gave sannyasa only to those who were born in brahmana families and he engaged them in preaching widely. In that lineage the practice of accepting sannyasa continues to this day although the criteria for accepting this order of life is no longer restricted to those born in brahmana families. Indeed we now have sannyasis who by socioreligious caste consideration were born as “untouchables.”

Today the general public does not automatically identify the sannyasa dress with spiritual advancement, and thus it may not always be conducive to furthering the message of Mahaprabhu. For example, although Srila Prabhupada gave me sannyasa, at one point he also wrote that in consideration of my preaching service at the time, which involved dressing in secular clothes, such acceptance of the formalities of sannyasa might be more of a hindrance than anything else. Therefore advanced devotees should determine whom to give sannyasa to in consideration of a number of factors, among which public opinion and perception is as important as is the devotee’s level of spiritual advancement. At some point public opinion could warrant either the need for woman sannyasis or no sannyasis at all. At the same time, the tradition very much needs the guidance of spiritually advanced devotees, both male and female, who have renounced material life.

My personal opinion in consideration of public perception is that there is considerable merit in continuing the sannyasa tradition today but that the criteria for its acceptance should rest in greater spiritual advancement and scriptural knowledge than has been the standard in the recent past. I also believe that it is likely that there are a number of women who meet these criteria.

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