Q. Why aren’t women allowed to take sannyasa? If women are not these bodies and Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy teaches that all souls are equal and get an equal opportunity to go back to Krsna, then why is there a restriction against women taking sannyasa? This restriction indicates to me that women are not being given the same opportunity as men for full spiritual advancement. In other spiritual societies women are given sannyasa, so why is it different in Gaudiya Vaisnavism? When I asked this question of other devotees, the answer I received was that women are not given sannyasa because they are supposed to be protected. However, I am aware that devotee women are not always protected and sometimes are even sent out alone to preach in foreign countries, including Africa. Please enlighten me on this matter.
A. The heart of Vaisnava sannyasa is renouncing material life and embracing the service of Sri Krsna. This is open to both men and women. Whereas the formality of accepting the renounced order of sannyasa has largely been restricted to men in consideration of socioreligious concerns. However, as circumstances change and these concerns are no longer relevant, I see no reason why women should be barred from accepting sannyasa.
In our times the relevance of anyone formally accepting sannyasa is questionable in terms of how it is perceived by the public. Furthermore, the tendency to equate the formal acceptance of sannyasa with spiritual advancement has caused many devotees to aspire for the formality of sannyasa rather than the substance of the order.
Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu took the renounced order of life for the sake of preaching. At that time sannyasis were respected in Indian society, and thus Mahaprabhu took advantage of this in order to bring attention to his message. Similarly, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura instituted Vaisnava sannyasa in his lineage nearly a century ago. Among other reasons, he did this for the purpose of bringing dignity to the Gaudiya lineage in the eyes of the masses, who, due to the influence of the Advaitins and smarta brahmanas, over-identified the formal order of sannyasa with spiritual advancement and believed that one must be born in a brahmana family and then take sannyasa in order to attain liberation.
In his lineage, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta gave sannyasa only to those who were born in brahmana families and he engaged them in preaching widely. In that lineage the practice of accepting sannyasa continues to this day although the criteria for accepting this order of life is no longer restricted to those born in brahmana families. Indeed we now have sannyasis who by socioreligious caste consideration were born as “untouchables.”
Today the general public does not automatically identify the sannyasa dress with spiritual advancement, and thus it may not always be conducive to furthering the message of Mahaprabhu. For example, although Srila Prabhupada gave me sannyasa, at one point he also wrote that in consideration of my preaching service at the time, which involved dressing in secular clothes, such acceptance of the formalities of sannyasa might be more of a hindrance than anything else. Therefore advanced devotees should determine whom to give sannyasa to in consideration of a number of factors, among which public opinion and perception is as important as is the devotee’s level of spiritual advancement. At some point public opinion could warrant either the need for woman sannyasis or no sannyasis at all.
At the same time, the tradition very much needs the guidance of spiritually advanced devotees, both male and female, who have renounced material life.
My personal opinion in consideration of public perception is that there is considerable merit in continuing the sannyasa tradition today but that the criteria for its acceptance should rest in greater spiritual advancement and scriptural knowledge than has been the standard in the recent past. I also believe that it is likely that there are a number of women who meet these criteria.