Monday Morning Greetings #15 – Can Women Take Sannyasa?

April 11th, 2016

Can Women Take Sannyāsa? *
An interesting question was asked after my Bhāgavatam class Sunday, “Why are women forbidden to take sannyāsa?” A thoughtful discussion ensued. I especially like the contribution of Kaustubha dās, the Senior Educator of The Bhakti Center, who was asked a similar question in a seminar he had given the week before. The thrust of his explanation involved how the dynamic of western or modern upbringings fosters a perspective of tradition that is somewhat skewed and often leads to the misunderstanding of the value, and even the basic intent, behind much of the traditional practices of yoga or bhakti, such as sannyāsa. Here is the gist of his interesting answer on this subject:
“In terms of women being forbidden to take sannyāsa, it is not unfair or discriminatory. It only seems so because of the image we have of sannyāsa in today’s world. The modern sannyāsa is usually in a hierarchical position in society, often a guru, and a leader within an institutional preaching mission. Even if very renounced, his position still generally wields power and he often controls substantial wealth and assets and much facility is offered for his. If that is indeed what sannyāsa is about, then I can see why people today would think it was and is discriminatory not to offer the same opportunity for women.
The traditional sannyāsa, however, was much different. It was an arduous life of renunciation. After taking sannyāsa, the man would have to leave home and walk through the forest barefoot and depend on God for sustenance and protection. Even sixty years ago when Śrīla Prabhupāda was initially asked to take sannyāsa by a respected god-brother, he momentarily balked contemplating what the life of a sannyāsa in the Gauḍīya Maṭha meant.
The people of yore thus shuttered to think what the life of a sannyāsa would impose on their father who left home, what to speak of the thought of putting their mothers, or any woman for that matter, in such an unprotected and painstaking situation. The prohibition of women taking sannyāsa was thus born out of this sense of compassion. As difficult and dangerous as it is for a man to wander as a homeless beggar, that situation would be even more vulnerable for women.
And for women who sought and were qualified for that level of renunciation, other gender appropriate situations were offered. After Lord Caitanya took sannyāsa, Viṣṇupriyā, the wife of Lord Caitanya, shaved her head, wore only white cloths and stay at home protected by his senior disciples. She would count her japa by placing one grain of rice in a bowl after each completed round and then after chanting all day she would cook that rice and offer it to a deity of Lord Caitanya. And that’s all she would eat. She was more than sannyāsa.”
So that was the gist of our discussion. I am satisfied with our conclusion. Having said that, the next obvious question arises, “Can women be dīkṣā-gurus?” That’s a subject for another day.
* I am not sure everyone reading this is familiar with the term. For those who are not familiar, sannyāsa is the fourth ashram of the Vedic social order, where a man, usually towards the last part of his life, leaves home for a life of complete renunciation.

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