Found in Sanga, Sanga 2003.

Q. Sripad Tripurari Maharaja’s comments on women being given sannyasa were interesting.

His writings have always struck a chord in the hearts of many readers. However, considering various quotes from Srila Prabhupada against the idea, I for one am feeling a bit confused. Perhaps Swami can shed more light on his comments.

A. In modern times one would be hard pressed to offer considerable logic as to why women cannot take sannyasa, rather than just quoting the Vedas, which say many other things about women that Srila Prabhupada ignored or even transgressed.

Other than one or two exceptions, for the most part Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura did not give sannyasa to those not born in brahmana families. This was not because he was opposed to the idea of doing so, but as part of a preaching strategy in consideration of time and circumstances. In the traditional Vedic system only those born as brahmanas are encouraged to take sannyasa. This is the Vedic system, instituted by Sankara and followed by Madhva and for the most part by Ramanujacarya.

Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura took many of the details for his Gaudiya sannyasa concept from the Ramanuja sect, and established the idea of daiva varnasrama for Gaudiya Vaisnavas, or Vedic considerations of dharma sastra adjusted to facilitate those treading the bhakti marga.

However, his disciples widely extended the formal Vedic standard for sannyasa and made other other insightful adjustments in consideration of daiva varnashrama for spreading Gaudiya Vaisnavism in modern times. Among other things they widely gave sannyasa to qualified devotees not born in brahmana families, and Srila Prabhupada went even further by giving sannyasa to those born outside of the varnasrama system. He did this in consideration of time and circumstances, which have changed considerably since he wrote his comments on the question of women accepting sannyasa. I have suggested that in spite of what Srila Prabhupada has written, time and circumstances may warrant reconsideration. Interestingly, Srila Prabhupada made insightful adjustments in many instances with regard to the involvement of women in the mission.

The brahmacarini ashram is one example of Prabhupada’s adjustments. Another prime example of Srila Prabhupada’s insightful adjustments was his practice of engaging women in the seva puja of the Deity. In the mission of Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura women were not allowed to do seva puja or even cook for the Deity in the temple. When Srila Sridhara Deva Goswami adjusted this standard by allowing women to cook for the Deity in his temple, I personally heard him criticized by some of his godbrothers’ disciples for his so-called deviation from the standard set by Bhaktisiddhanta. Again, Srila Prabhupada went even further by giving women full access to Deity worship except in some of his temples in India where he felt criticism by the religious and Vaisnava orthodoxy might pose a problem for his missions there.

Of course, these decisions are not for any and every devotee to make, instituting changes as they like. They are time and place determinations for empowered preachers.

Q. There was a recent VNN article against the idea of women taking sannyasa. In that article a quote from Bhaktivinoda Thakura was posted as evidence against the idea of women taking sannyasa, but to me this quote seems to support your position on the issue. Do you have any comments about the following words from Bhaktivinoda Thakura?

strilokera grhasta asrama o sthala visese vanaprastha vyatita anya kona asrama svikarya naya. kona asadharana-bhaktisampanna stri vidya, dharma o samarthya labha karatah yadi brahmacarya va sannyasa asrama grahana kariya saphalya labha kariya thakena va labha karena, taha sadharanataha komala sraddha, komala sarira, komala buddhi stri jatira pakse vidhi nahe.

“There are no asramas acceptable by women other then the householder (grhasta) asrama or in specific cases as per time, place, and circumstance the vanaprastha asrama. Of course, there can be some exceptional rare cases when an extraordinary and greatly advanced woman in bhakti can accept the brahmacarya and sannyasa asramas and make a success of her spiritual life.

But in the normal and general case, these ashramas are not meant for women because of their delicate faith, delicate body, and delicate intelligence.”

A. The concept of daiva varnashrama instituted by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura comes from Thakura Bhaktivinoda. Here we find that the Thakura finds room for women sannyasis within this conception. Not only does this quote from Bhaktivinoda Thakura give license for exceptional women to take sannyasa, it also gives reasons as to why they were generally considered unfit for this ashrama.

Bhaktivinoda writes that the brahmacari and sannyasa ashramas are not meant for women because of their tender faith, tender body, and tender intelligence. This explanation obviously applies more to times gone by when women were considered delicate in all circumstances owing to certain social conditions. Times have changed, and previously I pointed out that in the 1960’s Srila Prabhupada felt that the time was right to establish a brahmacarini asrama in his movement even though Bhaktivinoda wrote a hundred years ago that this ashram is unacceptable for women. Bhaktivinoda also describes women as having delicate bodies but we see practically that many of today’s women are more powerful and physically fit then men and are also more motivated, educated, and accomplished than they were when Prabhupada began his preaching mission in the West. In his dynamic mission women proved to be both intelligent and faithful, in many cases more so than male devotees. Therefore, all things considered, I see this quote from Bhaktivinoda as a total and comprehensive endorsement of my position on the subject—that there may come a time when an acarya sees fit to give sannyasa to women. Indeed, I have been told that Sripad Bhakti Sundara Govinda Maharaja, the spiritual successor of Pujyapada Bhakti Raksaka Sridhara Maharaja for all of his maths, gave sannyasa to one of his female disciples several years ago.

Q. In your Sanga you suggested that women may be eligible for sannyasa but by doing this you have gone against an eternal religious principle that is one of the cornerstones of Vedic culture: the protection of women. The Bhagavatam says that religious principles are given by God, “dharmam tu saksad bhagavan pranitam,” and that no one can go against religious principles.

A. First of all we do not live in the Vedic culture, nor is it possible or necessary to resurrect it. Rather than artificially attempting to resurrect it, and really only picking and choosing things from it that reinforce our own psychology, my suggestion is that we should extract essential principles from this spiritually based civilization and incorporate them into modern society. In fact we might be surprised to find that many of its wise principles are also principles embraced in the modern world, albeit in forms that some devotees cannot recognize.

The protection of women has been important in almost all cultures of the past, and these cultures accomplished this by various social and cultural standards. The modern world is no different. In today’s world there is considerable concern for the protection of women. While some, as many leaders today acknowledge, take the rights of women too far and in advocating they endanger the unborn for mere convenience, nevertheless, in principle the protection of women is a cornerstone of modern society. For the most part modern society seeks to accomplish this by affording women higher education. Indeed, thanks to such education today’s women are more protected from male chauvinism, which has caused them considerable suffering in the past.

Having said this, it is important to note that while the protection of women is a cornerstone of Vedic civilization as well as that of any civilized culture, this does not make it synonymous with the eternal religious principles of the Bhagavata school. The citation referred to (dharmam tu saksad bhagavata pranitam) appears in the Bhagavatam, not in relation to principles of varnasrama dharma or Vedic principles, but rather in relation to principles of bhagavata dharma. The latter transcends the former. By standards pertaining to varnasrama dharma and Vedic ritual, Ajamila of the Bhagavatam should have been taken to hell, but in consideration of bhagavata dharma with its emphasis on the importance of chanting the name of God, it was determined by the knowers of dharma that he was no longer under Yamaraja’s jurisdiction. Thus the principles of varnasrama dharma and Vedic civilization can be adjusted by those treading the bhagavata marga, and in doing so they do not violate the principle of this citation. Indeed, they fulfill it!

Srila Prabhupada comments on this citation thus in his Bhaktivedanta purport:

“When challenged by the Visnudutas to describe the principles of religion, the Yamadutas said, veda-pranihito dharmah: the religious principles are the principles enacted in the Vedic literature. They did not know, however, that the Vedic literature contains ritualistic ceremonies that are not transcendental, but are meant to keep peace and order among materialistic persons in the material world. Real religious principles are nistraigunya, above the three modes of material nature, or transcendental. The Yamadutas did not know these transcendental religious principles, and therefore when prevented from arresting Ajamila they were surprised . . .Those who do not know this principle but who simply attach their faith to the Vedic rituals are called veda-vada-ratah.

“Herein it is stated that the real religious principle is that which is given by the Supreme Personality of Godhead. That principle is stated in Bhagavad-gita. Sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja: one should give up all other duties and surrender unto the lotus feet of Krishna. That is the real religious principle everyone should follow. Even though one follows Vedic scriptures, one may not know this transcendental principle, for it is not known to everyone. To say nothing of human beings, even the demigods in the upper planetary systems are unaware of it. This transcendental religious principle must be understood from the Supreme Personality of Godhead directly or from His special representative.”

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