Q. I am a journalist with the women’s magazine Elle. I am researching an article on women gurus and their path to spirituality. The article will be a feature, exploring the lives of three or four women who have chosen the spiritual path. The article will show their journey, including how they got divine inspiration, how they established themselves as spiritual guides, and how they acquired a mass following. I would like to ask you the following questions: What is the history of women gurus? From my understanding, they existed during the Vedic age and then were not allowed to practice religion. Is this correct?
A. Ancient Vedic society was patriarchal, and its literature indicates that men generally accepted the role of guru. In ancient Vedic culture, as in many of the world’s societies of antiquity, Hindu women’s roles were for the most part concerned with family life, and women did not receive higher scriptural education.
This does not mean that there were no spiritually qualified women. There were many, and as such, spirituality does not depend on theoretical knowledge derived from scriptural education. It can manifest in anyone who surrenders to the will of God. However, while such spiritually advanced women were respected in Vedic society, social conditions left little room for women to formally accept the role of guru.
What we find in more modern times, dating back as far as 500 years ago with the advent of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, is a shift in Hindu culture such that the essence or heart of Vedic spiritual culture is emphasized over the social norms of its past. Thus there has been a proliferation of women gurus in India and the Western world among the Hindu traditions as well as in many Buddhist traditions. Given today’s social norms, the number of women gurus has reached new heights. The popularity of women gurus is in part also a reaction to well-documented abuses on the part of male gurus and the belief that women are less prone to exploiting others than men are.
The soul is neither man nor woman. Be one man or women in body, a soul is prone to corruption to the extent that it identifies with this world. Thus the guru must be in the world but not of it.
Q. How many women gurus today are fraudulent? Which if any are so?
A. These are questions that sincere seekers must answer for themselves. However, such seekers would do well to look for a guru—woman or man—that represents a tradition or lineage with a scriptural canon, and whose words and actions conform with that canon and the standards of that lineage (albeit dynamically applied in terms of today’s world). One should be leery, that is, of those gurus who make their doctrine up as they go along.
Better to look to lineages that date back to antiquity, that have taken the time to articulate their spiritual metanarrative in writing, and that offer an impressive track record of spiritual success.
Q. What is your opinion of women becoming gurus?
A. In days past there were a number of women gurus in the Gaudiya tradition. The most prominent were Jahnava Ma and Gangamata Goswamini. Given my spiritual heritage, today’s world, and core spiritual principles, I personally have no objection whatsoever and indeed encourage spiritually qualified women to serve in the capacity of guru. Let whoever is qualified from any section of society come forward and do this important service for humanity.
Q. Srila Prabhupada seems to say in one purport that women can be siksa (instructing) gurus but not diksa (initiating) gurus: “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.” (SB 4.12.32) How do you understand this purport?
A. One should not identify spirituality with the social norms that were prevalent in previous centuries. These cultural considerations were transcended to some extent in Mahaprabhu’s time in light of his emphasis on essential spirituality. Therefore, there was no prohibition against Jahnava-devi being diksa-guru for her nephew/stepson Virabhadra and other spiritual luminaries of the time. More women diksa-gurus followed her in succession and other women also initiated in various other Gaudiya Vaisnava lineages. While qualifications in her line deteriorated after some time (warranting the concern of Srila Sridhara Maharaja, which he voiced in his book Sri Guru and His Grace), I have no doubt that there have been a number of very qualified women diksa-gurus in Gaudiya Vaisnavism. Although Srila Prabhupada said one thing about the Vedic times of Dhruva, he said something quite different in his time, something that supports the idea that there is no prohibition in Mahaprabhu’s movement for women becoming diksa-gurus.
Prof. O’Connell: Is it possible, Swamiji, 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 krishna-tattva-vetta sei guru haya. The qualification of guru is that he must be fully cognizant of the science of Krishna. Then he or she can become guru. Yei krishna-tattva-vetta, sei guru haya. 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 Krishna consciousness perfectly, she can become guru.” (Conversation 6/18/76)
It is really quite striking that during Mahaprabhu’s times women served as gurus even though the socioreligious norms were much more conservative than today. The norm in those times was that even if one was spiritually qualified as a Vaisnava but born in a lower caste he would not perform marriages and Vedic (karma-khanda) sacrifices, which were part of the religious occupation of the brahmanas (not that he would have any desire to do so). This idea was even supported by Jiva Goswami in his very conservative commentary on the capacity of bhakti to destroy prarabdha karma (Brs.1.1.21)
Therein, Sri Jiva says that a lower-class person in consideration of birth who becomes spiritually qualified as a devotee is eligible to perform Vedic rites, but just as a brahmana boy is eligible but must wait to do so until receiving his sacred thread, similarly the devotee from a lower class family while eligible do to his engagement in bhakti must wait until his next birth to perform brahminical duties. This, of course, does not include arcana (Deity worship), which is a limb of bhakti. However, Visvanatha Cakravarti many years later wrote the opposite when commenting on the same section. He emphasized that the slightest touch with bhakti immediately qualifies one for the performance of Vedic rites or any other religious duty. In doing so, he demonstrated that Sri Jiva Goswami’s commentary was written in consideration of the socioreligious norms of his time. The sampradaya was just beginning to be established in the religious society, which was predominated by Advaitin smarta brahmanas.
Can we not consider the socioreligious norms of our times when discussing and implementing our doctrine? The historical record says yes. We must extract the essence and apply it dynamically. This is the business of a guru.
The first half of the verse that Srila Prabhupada quotes twice in the excerpt above is kiba vipra kiba nyasi sudra kene naya, which means one’s social or religious standing in society has no bearing on one’s capacity to serve as guru. The only qualification is ei krishna tattva vetti, one must know the tattva of Krishna. Pujapada Sridhara Deva Goswami, predicting that the question of women accepting the role of acarya in our movement would someday arise, cited the examples of Jahnava-devi and Gangamata Goswamini and said that whoever was qualified should be accepted as acarya.
One should be careful not to interpret this verse from Caitanya-caritamrta to say that it refers only to siksa-gurus in an effort to discourage women from serving as diksa-gurus. This is the argument that some caste Goswamis use to say that sannyasis can only be siksa-gurus, not diksa-gurus. Caste, asrama, gender, and other material considerations are transcended by knowing the science of Krishna. Thus Mahaprabhu, through the pen of Krishnadasa Kaviraja, tells us that anyone who knows that science in a substantial sense can become guru.
Furthermore in another conversation, Prabhupada stresses the same point:
“If a woman is perfect in Krishna consciousness … Just like Jahnava devi, Lord Nityananda’s wife, she was acarya. She was acarya. She was controlling the whole Vaisnava community…. It is not that woman cannot be acarya.” (Conversation 6/29/72)
Here Prabhupada says that a Krishna-conscious woman can be an acarya and that Jahnava devi was an acarya who was in charge of the whole Vaisnava community. Although she was recognized substantially as leader of that community, she may have at times deferred to male devotees in ceremonial matters in consideration of social norms. However, the same social norms no longer exist. What applied in those times as well as today is yei krishna tattva vetti, one who knows the tattva of Krishna consciousness is guru. Anyone, man or woman, who knows and lives the tattva of Krishna consciousness can become acarya and give diksa and siksa.
Q. Is it not inappropriate for a woman to be a guru?, given that she should set an example for other women in terms of chastity, which runs counter to the nature and character of a guru or sannyasi?
A. The guru is the most chaste person in society. He is chaste to Krishna. What better chastity is there? We need examples like this. Sri Guru transcends male and female qualities, and thus the principle of guru—guru tattva—can appear in one who possesses either male or female qualities. Because one is familiar with male gurus and has erroneously identified their male qualities with the principle of guru, one may think that women cannot be guru, but I do not agree.
Krishna may be the guru of the whole world, but his guru is Radha, radhikara prema guru ami sisya nata.