Women Saints in Gaudiya Vaishnavism

Women Saints in Gaudiya Vaishnavism 
Jagadananda Das -

There are few traditional societies in which women have played a dominant historical role. In this respect, Gaudiya Vaishnavism is no different. The egalitarianism of bhakti movements, which stress the universality of devotion and deny any disqualifications based on birth, sex, or caste, seems to have had limited real effects on the actual social circumstances of any of these classes of people. There are some, including the eminent Bengali historian, Ramakanta Chakravarti, who feel that the status of women was improved in Chaitanya Vaishnavism, mainly due to the singular example of Jahnava Devi.Indeed, it does appear that literacy rates among women (and men) in Vaishnava castes in Bengal were somewhat higher than in other, comparable groups, but this evidence is far from overwhelming.

Today, some women may be found playing the role of guru, especially ministering to other

women, and there are some Chaitanya Vaishnava women who sing padavali kirtan or give discourses on Vaishnava texts. On the whole, however, despite their dominant numbers at most religious events, the role of women continues to be a supporting one and subordinate to that of men.

One question that needs analysis is whether the importance of Radha in the Vaishnava pantheon and the general weight given to the female principle and feminine virtues in the Gaudiya Vaishnava culture has had any influence on the status of women. Many feminist analysts have pointed out that the worship of goddesses has no proven relation to any such amelioration in societies where such worship is conducted. On the contrary, in a cross-cultural study of women in religion, it has been observed that, "Quite frequently, the very aspects of women glorified in a religious system are used as justification for the social and political denigration of women. Different ideological definitions and perceptions of men and women further the separation and isolation of women. Seldom does this work to women's advantage. Even when women are seen as spiritual, as in the nineteenth-century cult of true womanhood, the expression of such spirituality was believed best confined to the privacy of the domestic world."

In its origins, it might be said that the Chaitanyaite Gaudiya tradition is no exception to this rule. In spite of the exalted place that it gives to a female deity, Radha, and to the feminine virtues, the Chaitanyaite sect, at least in the vision of it presented by the Vrindavan Goswamis and their followers, with its strong emphasis on asceticism, appears to have followed the Puranic traditions regarding women as found in the Bhagavatam, with its many clearly mysogynistic statements.

Despite this, a closer examination of the Chaitanya Charitamrita shows that though women are clearly cast in traditional feminine roles as wives and mothers, there is little or no overt misogyny. The heavy emphasis on the renunciation of sexuality and the dangers of involvement with women when engaged in the exercise of spiritual practices do not necessarily enjoin the explicit or willful hatred or denigration of women, though it cannot have been particularly helpful.

The case of Junior Haridas, described by Krishna Das Kaviraj in the Chaitanya Charitamrita, is perhaps the most outstanding example of the strict standard of sexual segregation Chaitanya expected of his renunciate disciples. The young renunciate Haridas was ostracized by Chaitanya for having begged rice from an old woman, Madhavi Devi, the sister of one of his most intimate associates, Sikhi Mahiti. Chaitanya's adherence to a principle, to an ascetic standard irrespective of all extenuating circumstance, is highlighted by Kaviraj when he glories Madhavi Devi for her own devotional achievements; he states that she is a member of Chaitanya's most exclusive inner circle: the half of the three and a half most worthy recipients of his mercy in the universe.Even so, of the various Bhagavata verses that might have been chosen as authorities for such a strict standard, Kaviraj envisions Chaitanya as quoting BhP 9.19.17, which places emphasis on the strength of the senses and the weakness of man rather than on the insidious sexuality of women:
One should not sit alone with one's mother, sister or daughter. The senses are so strong that they can distract even a wise man.
On the other hand, that Madhavi Devi is known as only "half a worthy" indicates rather clearly the sexual-political position taken by Kaviraj and the Vrindavan school of Chaitanya Vaishnavism. It should be noted, however, that Madhavi Devi is unique in the biographies of Chaitanya as a woman who is given credit for personal spiritual achievement--even though neither her devotion nor her age could rid her of the curse of being a danger to men who wished to free themselves of sexual desire.

Another comparable incident is found in the same biography: Chaitanya is described as being overwhelmed emotionally upon hearing verses from the Gita Govinda being sung by a woman. He runs to embrace the singer, oblivious to her sex. Only when he is tackled by his servant Govinda Das does he come to his senses and realize the magnitude of what he had been about to do.

The exception that proves the rule is also given by Kaviraj. On one occasion in his later life, while Chaitanya was taking darshan of Jagannath in the midst of a crowd, an Orissan woman placed her feet on his back as she strained to get a look at the deity, entirely unaware of the impropriety of her action. Rather than condemning the woman, as his own disciples wished, Chaitanya told them to leave her alone and let her drink in the vision of the Lord to her heart's content. He furthermore expressed a wish for a similar intensity of desire, saying, "Oh that fortunate woman! I worship her feet. By her grace may I also have such eagerness [to see Jagannath]." It is significant, though, that Chaitanya does not speak to her directly.

In principle, however, it would be a mistake to judge the Chaitanyaite attitude to women on the basis of the strict standards of behavior shown by the ascetics who modeled themselves on his example. The medieval bhakti movements in general showed a more democratic attitude to the practices of religion, giving equal rights to low castes, untouchables and women. Thus Balaram Das could sing that women of respectable lineage (to whom such a public display would have been anathema) danced publicly in the sankirtan procession. Quite in contrast to the findings of Sinclair cited above, Donna Wulff, based on her experience of modern feminist singers of kirtan like Radharani, has concluded that women in Bengal have always enjoyed a comparatively higher status than elsewhere in India and that this fact is both reflected in and supported by the existence of cults of feminine deities. Nevertheless, the women whose biographies (or legends) are described briefly in this article are exceptional: women have only rarely exercised leadership roles for large numbers of Gaudiya devotees of both sexes.

It is no doubt true that women of Sahajiya sects have higher status within their groupings (the above-mentioned Radharani be longs to such a sampradaya), while the orthodoxy preserves a more conservative attitude to sexual relations. It would be a worthwhile subject for research whether the Sahajiya belief in the inherent divinity of both male and females as sexual beings translates into higher status for women than in the orthodox. Whatever findings came out of such research, however, I believe it would be a mistake to attribute the elevated position and reputation achieved by some of the women in orthodox Gaudiya Vaishnavism to the widespread influence of Sahajiya doctrines on the orthodoxy. Indeed, orthodox Gaudiya Vaishnava women whose lives are covered in this article have excelled on their own, by remaining true to the core beliefs of the sampradaya rather than through reform or revolt.

I have divided this brief overview into three periods that for convenience's sake I shall call the early, middle and modern periods. The early period covers those women who were contemporary with Chaitanya and whose stories are found in his biographies; the middle, predominantly those whose lives were described in the histories of the early post-Chaitanya period, such as Bhakti-ratnakara, Prema-vilasa, Anuraga-valli, Murali-vilasa, etc. Finally, by the modern period I refer to the 19th and 20th centuries. Despite the limited amount of information available, it is tentatively concluded that the status of women reached a high point in the middle period, when Jahnava Devi and a few other powerful individuals exercised considerable leadership.

1. Ramakanta Chakravarti, Vaishnavism in Bengal (Calcutta: Sanskrit Pustak Bhandar, 1985), p. 174. "One of the positive results of the Chaitanya movement was the elevation of the social and religious status of women in Bengal. This remarkable development was first seen in the assumption of ecclesiastical leadership by Jahnava Devi, second daughter of Suryadas Sarkhel and second wife of Nityananda."

2. Cf. Sinclair, Karen, "Women and Religion" in The Cross-Cultural Study of Women, (ed.) Margot I. Duley and Mary I. Edwards (New York: The Feminine Press, 1986), 107-124. Particularly, pp. 110-12.

3. mahitIra bhaginI sei nAma mAdhavI devI | vRddha tapasvinI Ara paramA vaiSNavI || prabhu lekhA kare jAre rAdhikAra gaNa | jagatera madhye pAtra sADe tin jana || svarUpa gosAi Ara rAya rAmAnanda | zikhi mahiti tina tAra bhaginI Ardha jana || CC 3.2.104-6.

4. According to Haridas Das, Madhavi Devi composed a Sanskrit play about Lord Jagannath, PuruSottama-deva-nATakam. If this is true, she is a signal exception as the only female author of a Sanskrit text in the Chaitanya Vaishnava tradition. (Cf.Gaudiya Vaishnava Abhidhana (ed. Haridas Das (Nabadwip: Haribol Kutir, 471 Chaitanyabda [1964]), 1311, 1624.)

5. Chaitanya Charitamrita 3.13.77~7. See also 3.3.75.

6. Chaitanya Charitamrita 3.14.24-31.

7. Cited in Sankar Sen Gupta, A Study of Women in Bengal. Calcutta: Indian Publications, 1970, 179. saGkIrtana mAjhe nAce kulera bauhAri. Chaitanya's early kirtans in the house of Srivas Pandit, however, were not open to women. Vrindavan Das tells that Srivas's mother-in-law tried to hide in order to witness Chaitanya's dancing, but that her presence, even though not visible, interfered with his experiencing the usual ecstasy. Chaitanya Bhagavata, 2.16.1-18.

8. "Images and Roles of Women in Bengali Vaishnava Padavali Klrtan," in (ed.) Joseph O'Connell, Bengal Vaishnavism, Orientalism, Society and the Arts (East Lansing, Michigan: Asian Studies Centre, 1985), 11-27.

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