Question: We find that throughout the bona-fide paramparās in India the brahma-gāyatrī is not given to women, yet your spiritual master (Śrīla A.C. Bhaktivedānta Swami Prabhupāda) has done so. Why?
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: It is true that our Guru Mahārāja gave brahma-gāyatrī to women, but that is not unprecedented, nor is it unauthorised. In the śāstra we find that women and śūdras are generally never offered mantra-dīkṣā (brahma-gāyatrī). These two classes are of the same type and they are generally considered by the followers of the Vedic tradition as unfit to receive mantra and to perform all the duties that one performs after receiving mantra-dīkṣā such as studying the śāstra, yāga and yajña. Nonetheless, we find that Īśvara Purī, the spiritual master of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, accepted Govinda Dāsa (a śūdra) as his disciple by offering him the appropriate mantras. Govinda Dāsa was a śūdra by birth and thus he was ineligible for dīkṣā, yet Īśvara Purī accepted him. Later on, Sārvabhauma Bhaṭṭācārya doubted the authority of such a standard and he inquired from Mahāprabhu. The Lord replied by saying:
prabhu kahe – īśvara haya parama svatantra
īśvarera kṛpā nahe veda-paratantra
“The Lord said, ‘Both the Supreme Lord and Īśvara Purī are fully independent. The mercy of the Lord and Īśvara Purī are not subject to any Vedic rules and regulations.’” (Cc. Madhya-līlā 10.137)
Śrīla Prabhupāda was also like Īśvara Purī – he was an ocean of mercy (kṛpā-sindhu). Particularly he has been recognised by learned and self-realised Vaiṣṇavas as śaktyāveśa – the manifest potency of Śrī Nityānanda Avadhūta. Śrī Nityānanda Avadhūta is the personified mercy of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu and He was empowered to spread Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Thus, Śrīla Prabhupāda accepted women as disciples as generously as he accepted men.
Nityānanda Avadhūta is directly Śrī Baladeva Prabhu, by whose potency the pastimes of the Supreme Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa become manifest. Without being invested with the potency of Śrī Baladeva Prabhu (Śrī Nityānanda Avadhūta), no one can become an agent of the Supreme Lord in the matter of spreading Kṛṣṇa consciousness all over the world.
So our first consideration is from that standpoint – Śrīla Prabhupāda and his mercy are non-different from that of the Supreme. Therefore, we happily accept his decisions, even when the so-called ‘Vedic followers’ question them.
But who is a true ‘Vedic follower’? That is not so difficult to understand. One who has realised the purport of the Vedas is a true ‘Vedic follower’ – not simply those persons who adhere to the numerous rules and regulations found in the śāstra. Such persons are generally known as smartas, but such smartas are usually lacking in their realisation in regards to the ultimate goal of life.
One may regard the activities of an empowered agent of the Supreme Lord as independent and thus conclude that even his so-called unauthorised activities are to be accepted. But if we look closely in the Vedas, Purāṇas, etc. we will certainly find philosophical and practical support for his activities, because the ācārya does not act whimsically.
The brahma-gāyatrī is Vedic by nature and we find many examples of women in the Vedic literature chanting Vedic mantras such as Sarmā, Indrāṇī, Lopāmudrā and Apālā, to name but a few. Furthermore, in the Ṛg Veda there are many mantras whose seers were women. In his commentary to the Mahābhārata, Śrī Madhvācārya explains how Draupadī was a scholar of the Vedas:
vedā apyuttamastrībhiḥ kṛṣṇādyābhirivākhilāḥ
“The best of women should follow Draupadī and study the Vedas.” (Mahābhārata Tātparya Nirṇaya 29.33)
The regular chanting of the brahma-gāyatrī three times daily by the duly initiated is called sandhyā-vandana. We find in the Sundara-khaṇḍa of the Rāmāyaṇa that Hanumān was waiting for Mother Sītā to perform her sandhyā-vandana. Hanumān says:
sandhyā kāla manāḥ śyāmā dhruvam eṣyati jānakī
nadīm ca imām śiva jalām sandhyā arthe vara varṇinī
“Knowing that this is the time for sandhyā, the ever-youthful Jānakī (Sītā) who has the best of complexions, will certainly come to this river with auspicious water in order to perform the sandhyā rites.” (Rāmāyaṇa, Sundara-khaṇḍa, 14.49)
All types of bodily-consciousness, whether they are based on gender, race, or caste, are impediments to spiritual progress. One who wants to advance in Kṛṣṇa consciousness must become free from such lower planes of identification. On the spiritual platform there is no difference between one jīvātmā and another. All are actually prakṛti, or feminine, in the eyes of God.
It is sometimes said that among the conditioned souls, the mind and heart of a man is hard, whereas the mind and heart of a woman is soft. In the Gauḍīya Maṭha I have heard it stated many times that the brahma-gāyatrī denotes puruṣa-bhāva and when chanted by a man, his mind and heart softens; but if chanted by a woman, the effect will be just the opposite. If this were true there is still no objection to our Guru Mahārāja having given brahma-gāyatrī to western women, because in the west we do not find such subtle difference between men and women. In fact, the thinking and feeling of men and women in the west are so identical that we find women desiring the position of sannyāsa and even guru.
There are many circumstances that prevail in the west that are basically unheard of in India. Our Śrīla Prabhupāda was empowered to spread Kṛṣṇa consciousness throughout the world, in spite of the vast cultural differences between east and west, and he took liberties in doing so. One should judge a thing by the result (phalena paricīyate). Many swamis are now coming from India to the west for preaching, and some are even preaching Kṛṣṇa consciousness. However, I have not seen any of these swamis who have fully understood the magnitude and depth of the mission of Śrīla Prabhupāda. I do not say that this is their fault – the fault falls on the heads of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s disciples and followers who have not actually lived up to his standard. Thus his greatness and authenticity are now in question.
Since the disappearance of Śrīla Prabhupāda many unauthorised ‘disciples’ have introduced degraded standards and apa-siddhānta into his movement – such things are often being propagated in his name (‘Prabhupāda said,’ ‘Prabhupāda wanted’ etc.). Seeing this situation, even the orthodox sections of our own sampradāya often draw their conclusions far below the actual dignity and achievements of our Guru Mahārāja. It is indeed lamentable, but it is our fault – not theirs.
The duty of a disciple is to live up to the standards set by the previous ācāryas. The measure of the greatness of the spiritual master will be, in many cases, measured by the standard of his disciples. In this way Śrīla Prabhupāda used to stress that his disciples must rise to the standard, otherwise it would be he who would be criticised. Indeed, in this regard, there is much to be desired…