Women and Sannyasa: A comment
by Jalakara dasa
Posted January 17, 2003

I respectfully take exception to the statement made by Sri Gopa Kumar Dasa in his article on Women and Sannyasa, wherein he states "Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur...established the system of giving sannyasa only to male members of his mission who had been born in brahmana families."

This is the first time I have heard of this. In fact, as Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur was the son of Srila Bhaktivenode Thakur, who manifested his birth in a kyastha family, it is incredible to imagine he awarded the order of sannyasa only to those born of brahmana families.

In fact, prior to the intervention of Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, Gaudiya Vaishnavas did not wear brahmana threads, and if they were born in brahmana families, they generally discarded their sacred threads.

Similarly, there was no Gaudiya Vaishnava sannyasa, and no saffron at all. Gaudiya vaishnava renounciates accepted the title of babaji and wore white. Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati traveled to South India and studied the Ramanuja system for accepting sannyasa, and then he adopted it and became the first Gaudiya Vaishnava sannyasi. Our present system of sannyasa comes directly from him, just as our system of accepting the sacred thread does.

To suggest that "The disciples of Bhaktisiddhanta, most prominently Srila Prabhupada, extended the ashram of sannyasa to all appropriately disposed men regardless of their birth caste" is both incorrect and inappropriate.

In fact, Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur initiated one German disciple as a sannyasi, and there were Indian sannyasis from non-brahmana families.

Thus, by distorting historical facts, the author makes it appear that The awarding of sannyasa to women is only a logical progression in sannyasa liberalization began by Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati and continued down through the present day. This rather historically dubious argument is disingenuous and is transparent to any student with knowledge of the actual historical position.

Not only is there distinction made between men and women in the eligibility of men as opposed to women to receive sannyasa, so also Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur discriminated between the sexes in the awarding of sannyasa. Not only are women never actually given a thread, but also the first line of the Gayatri mantra, namely the "Om bhur bhuvah..." stanza, was only given to men, and never to women.

Why he did so is inappropriate to discuss here, as the subject matter justifies discussion in a separate article.

However, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada did expand from his guru in that he awarded that first line of gayatri to his female disciples, and he did empower female disciples to perform pujari functions.

It is interesting to note in this regard that while most other Gaudiya Vaishnava acharyas continue to withhold the first line of Gayatri from women, there is also often some difference in the exact wording of the Gayatri as given or in the number of times it is chanted.

Therefore, while it can be said that in the case of the Gayatri mantra there has been minor contextual change by different acharyas since Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, there has been little or no change in the manner of award of sannyasa.

In fact, the award of sannyasa to women was ridiculed by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Srila Prabhupada showed himself to be staunchly traditional in these fields, in spite of making some allowances according to time, place and circumstances.

To suggest that Srila Prabhupada approved of women taking sannyasa, or that the acceptance of sannyasa by women is in some way the logical extension of a vast trend of liberalizations begun by him is not only incorrect but also illogical. A study of Srila Prabhupada's lectures and writings will leave the reader with a clear understanding of where he stood on that issue.