In the center of this picture is one Jayasri Devi, an initiating female guru and an acharya of Sri Guru Prapanna society, and she is surrounded by sannyasis and brahmacharis from Gaudiya Vedanta Samiti, Sri Gopinath Gaudiya Math, and Sri Chaitanya Gaudiya Math. They came to celebrate her Vyasa Puja festival earlier this year. So, does that mean that FDG are perfectly acceptable in Gaudiya Math? That is probably not the right question to ask, but we can definitely take a mental note just in case these same devotees raise objections to FDG practice in ISKCON. Let’s look at the background for this occasion and, hopefully, learn a thing or two about how it came about and how the world works in general.
It all started with PatitPavan Prabhu, a young disciple of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati. He was not the same person as Patita Pavana Brahmachari who later became Bhakti Kevala Audulomi Swami. This PatitPavan joined as a child and got initiated at a tender age of eight. He grew up preaching under the wings of senior devotees and his service took him all over India. That’s how he met women who aspired to become fully engaged devotees but lacked social opportunities to practice and that’s how he got the idea to put Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati’s vision of Sri Vishnupriya Palli into practice. He got an approval from the devotee we know as Ananta Vasudeva Prabhu but after Ananta Vasudeva left Gaudiya Math PatitPavan also drifted away and eventually established Sri Guru Prapanna Ashram all by himself. It didn’t receive a warm welcome from the community, but women flocked there, engaged in service, and accepted him as their guru. The organization has half a dozen ashrams now and PatitPavan is worshiped there as a founder acharya pretty much in the same way we worship Srila Prabhupada.
PatitPavan, or Srila Prabhuji, or Srila Patitpavan Goswami Thakur has left this world in 1991 and several years later his foremost disciple, Jayasri Devi, accepted the position of an acharya, meaning she started initiating new members herself. We can argue that it’s ashastric but we also have to acknowledge that these female devotees have no other choice. They are not part of Gaudiya Math, they can’t go and take initiation from some male gurus they have never met before in their lives, and anyway they have developed spiritual affinity with the community they grew up in. Of course they get initiated there.
In his vision of Sri Vishnupirya Pallii Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati didn’t specify how initiation of new members should be conducted so they were on their own. Maybe if this Sri Guru Prapanna Ashram wasn’t so isolated from the start these female devotees could happily take initiation from male gurus, but in their case it didn’t happen and they did the best they could under the circumstances.
Another contentious issue here is sannyasa. PatitPavan himself started giving sannyasa to women in his ashram and now they continue the practice:
This sounds definitely ashastric, but they dug up their supporting quotes for it and no one can stop them anyway. I suggest we look at other aspects of sannyasa here, namely the social one. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati reintroduced sannyasa into Gaudiya Vaishnavism to raise social profile of his preachers. It was considered a sort of climb down from the paramahamsa position expected from genuine followers of Caitanya Mahaprabhu because sannyasa is a position within varnashrama. Our ISKCON equivalent of such social sannyasa could be “battlefield commission”, the term coined by Srila Prabhupada, according to Dhristadyumna Prabhu’s memories in Vedabase Folio. It means that certain positions in the society (on the battlefield) need to be filled for it to function. Recently departed Pushta Krishna Prabhu received his sannyasa only fourteen months after his fist initiation, at the age of twenty two. Somebody had to lead the preaching effort and leaders needed to be given distinguishing ranks. Sannyasis didn’t get only maha prasadam, they were expected to commandeer devotees and organize massive preaching programs. Without this title no one would listen to them, so the social need was there.
Similarly, in this Sri Guru Prapanna organization they have the need to distinguish senior, accomplished members from the newcomers. It’s unfortunate they decided to call it “sannyasa” but the need for some kind of higher rank is there and it needs to be filled. We can’t argue against it, even if “female sannyasi” sounds completely bogus.
Speaking of which, have a quick look at this video. You don’t need to know the language – it’s a popular Russian cartoon song and a small group of people goofing around, trying to sing and dance. The sign at the top say that it’s a “Festival of Psychology for the Third Millennium”. Two of the “performers” appearing there are legitimate ISKCON sannyasis.
So we have our sannyasis doing that and the “bogus” female sannyasis doing this:
All in all, their situation is very different from our ISKCON. Our women are not isolated, we probably don’t even have brahmacharini’s ashrams anymore and it’s not clear if there’s a need for our own version of Sri Vishnupriya Palli. In any case, female devotees joining it would probably have two-three decades of devotional service and all the initiations they could get already. But these women don’t have any of that and so they need gurus, and the only one available is a female. Should she be recognized?
It appears in the beginning no one in Gaudiya Math recognized this Sri Guru Prapanna ashram but after twenty five years under female leadership it’s probably a good time to acknowledge that these are genuine devotees who are not going away and who are not doing it for self-aggrandizement. Their core group has been doing it for forty seven years now so it’s not a new thing that can fold any day. They ARE genuine vaishnavis and they do, apparently, get competent instructions from their female acharya. This should be respected.
One could argue that their mantras are illegitimate because their diksha is against Pancaratric principles. That maybe so, but our main mantra we all rely on – Hare Krishna, doesn’t need diksha initiation and our main deities – Sri Sri Gaura Nitai, are also kind enough to accept worship from otherwise unqualified people if it’s done sincerely. These women do it with the best mantras they have, we do it with the best of ours.
I heard how our Jahnavi Harrison in her interviews gives so much credit to a few weeks of her association with Mother Yamuna Devi. She, of course, didn’t receive initiation from Mother Yamuna, but she got so much inspiration from her. She felt the actual presence of Krishna Consciousness in Mother Yamuna, it wasn’t a theoretical thing which needed to be proved with quotes, it was real. She saw the light or, as we sing, it was a case of “divya jnan hride prokasito”. Incidentally, it’s also one of the key definitions of diksha – when divya jnana is revealed in the heart of a disciple. We don’t call it initiation but that’s what it was, and it came from a woman. I hope Jahnavi Mataji doesn’t object to me saying so. Anyway, no rituals were performed, no panca-samskaras, no names given, no mantras, no vows, and no titles, but this kind of spiritual connection is, indeed, real and eternal.
In case somebody is skeptical about Mother Jahnavi – an unmarried female performing for thousands of people and all that, but listen to her calling out “Govinda Damodara Madhaveti” in her most famous song and I don’t think anyone can say that there’s no genuine devotion there:
Lately we have become so embroiled in passionate, but ultimately dry arguments over what is right and what is wrong that we might miss the flow of actual devotion which is, indeed, like a river, and it’s supposed to melt our hearts and wash away our pride of being correct and victorious in debates.