“She has fully absorbed her body, mind and life in Lord Jagannatha. Therefore she was unaware that she was putting her foot on My shoulder. Alas! How fortunate this woman is! I pray at her feet that she favor Me with her great eagerness to see Lord Jagannatha.” (Lord Chaitanya, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Antya 14.29-30)
Question: “Though Lord Chaitanya is often considered the most merciful incarnation of Godhead, I cannot find references in the scriptures to His inclusion of women. How did Lord Chaitanya’s mercy extend to women? ”
Answer: Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is considered the most merciful incarnation of Godhead by those who have associated with Him in one form or another. This opinion is reinforced by the fact that His divinity is only hinted at in a few scriptures, thus keeping His fame and glory limited. This was the wish of Lord Chaitanya, for He wanted to give glory and importance to Lord Shri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Lord Chaitanya is the only reputed incarnation of Godhead in recent times who openly told others not to worship Him and to instead worship Krishna, Rama, or any other non-different form of Lord Vishnu. Due to His extreme kindness, generosity, and tireless efforts to spread the holy names of the Lord around India, He was recognized for who He was: Krishna Himself. His mercy extended to everyone in the world, including countless generations who never met Him or were never alive during His time. This mercy most certainly extended to women as well.
God is one. There can only be one Supreme Lord; otherwise there would be no God. If there were more than one God, then the concept of a supreme controller would be invalidated. Though there is only one God, He can take to countless forms and thus be addressed by an unlimited number of names. Just as there are multitudes of forms of living entities who each perform various activities, the Supreme Lord is also full of variegatedness. The material world is simply a shadow copy of the spiritual world. In order for there to be a shadow, there must be light. In the same way, in order for the world we live in to be considered a shadow, there must be an original realm, a universe which is full of light, energy, and knowledge. This realm is eternal and self-illuminating, thus making it an appropriate home for the original Personality of Godhead.
According to Vedic information, the original name and form for God is Krishna. Lord Shri Krishna is the most-attractive and most-opulent; hence He is also known as Bhagavan. We individual souls are part and parcel of Krishna, but we always remain inferior to Him. Part of our constitutional makeup consists of free-will and independence. Though we are inferior to God, we have full independence in our choice of association. Those wanting to remain in the company of the all-attractive Lord are allowed to do so in the spiritual world. Those desiring separation also have their wishes fulfilled. The seed of this desire for separation is the flawed premise that God is equal to the individual soul. With the false premise comes the false conclusion of the individual being able to accurately imitate and hopefully surpass the Lord’s abilities in the areas of creation, maintenance, and destruction.
Since both the premise and conclusion are false, the desires that result cannot be acted out upon in the spiritual realm, the origin of light, knowledge, and truth. Rather, inferior activities require an inferior playing field. Thus the Lord kindly creates the material world, a place where the autonomous individual souls desiring separation are allowed to act out their hopes and dreams of imitating God. Though the individual soul is full of independence and free will, we see that this autonomy is limited in a sense. For instance, the Lord can never be directed to a false realm through any other entity’s desires or demands. The individual souls, however, once cast into the temporary and miserable realm, remain there until their desires become purified.
“Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion-at that time I descend Myself.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.7)
For the living entities, achieving this pure state is not very easy, so the Lord kindly descends to the temporary realm periodically to reinstitute the principles of religion and to aid the sincere souls in reclaiming their lost relationship with the Supreme. Dharma, in its context as the eternal spiritual occupational duty, was instituted in the material world by the Supreme Lord so as to allow the individual souls who mistakenly wished for separation to return to the spiritual realm. In this way, we see the real meaning of religion. When adherence to this dharma is absent, the individual soul is tossed around from one body to another through the laws of karma, which are enforced through the workings of nature. Possessing a contaminated consciousness, the individual soul can transmigrate from one body to another, from that of a fish to a dog, or even to a human being. Dharma only applies to the human being since only man can understand the difference between matter and spirit and the existence of a God. Therefore the human form of life is considered the most auspicious; it represents the best chance for the conditioned soul to become liberated from the cycle of birth and death.
The avatara, or incarnation of Godhead, is a symbol of the all-merciful nature of the Supreme Lord. Dharma seems nice in theory, but its practical application is often difficult to realize. Therefore to show others the true meaning behind dharma, the Lord descends as an avatara and makes good on the promises of the scriptures. Krishna’s two most famous incarnations are Lord Rama and Lord Krishna Himself, both of whom appeared on earth many thousands of years ago. Around five hundred years ago, Krishna appeared on earth in a concealed incarnation who took on the role of a preacher. When God comes to earth as a human being, He usually assumes the role of a warrior. This allows Him to provide protection to the innocent and those practicing devotional service, or bhagavata-dharma. Krishna is Bhagavan, and one who takes to worshiping Him is known as bhagavata. Those who take their dharma, or ultimate occupational duty in life, to be devotion to Bhagavan thus become adherents to bhagavata-dharma.
“I envy no one, nor am I partial to anyone. I am equal to all. But whoever renders service unto Me in devotion is a friend, is in Me, and I am also a friend to him.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 9.29)
The Lord is usually neutral towards all forms of life because everyone has, as their original sin so to speak, the desire to imitate Him. Since this desire is based off a false premise, the Lord has no liking or disliking of any particular conditioned entity. The devotees, however, ultimately realize the flawed nature of the material world and thus take to devotional service. Through this sincere desire they become endeared to the Lord, who then takes it upon Himself to ensure that their devotional practices go on uninterrupted. Around five hundred years ago, the practices of the Vaishnavas were being tainted by the onset of Kali Yuga, or the dark age of quarrel and hypocrisy. Followers of the Vedas were mostly taking to the monist philosophy known as Mayavada. This philosophy concludes that the individual souls are God themselves, but that they are simply unaware of it. Mayavada actually represents the nadir of material existence, the lowest stage of thinking that a person can descend to. Even an animal life is considered more beneficial than a human life which is mired in the mindset of Mayavada. The animals, in all their ignorance, would still never dare think themselves to be God. “God is me” is an accurate statement, but “I am God” certainly is not. If we are God, how did we end up in a conditioned state where we had to wear diapers in our early years of life? The monist thinking is surely foolish, yet due to the influence of Kali Yuga, the Mayavada philosophy became quite prominent in India around five hundred years ago.
Along came Lord Chaitanya, a preacher incarnation of Krishna, to reestablish the real meaning of dharma, the ultimate conclusion of life. Lord Chaitanya, who assumed the guise of a brahmana, or one in the priestly order, established the ultimate conclusion of achintya-bhedabheda-tattva, which states that the individual souls are simultaneously one with and different from the Supreme Lord. They are equal to God in the sense that everything spiritual and material is part of the Lord’s energy. God can never be separated from His energies, thus the individual souls always remain part of the definition of God. At the same time, the individuals are not nearly as powerful as the Supreme, so they remain inferior to Him at all times.
Lord Chaitanya was unique in that He openly preached His philosophy to anyone who would listen. He taught the truth of simultaneous oneness and difference through the congregational chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. In order to expand His preaching efforts, Lord Chaitanya took to the renounced order of life, sannyasa. He left His wife and mother at home and roamed around India as a mendicant to give His mercy to anyone who was willing to hear the holy name. As a sannyasi, Lord Chaitanya strictly forbade Himself from associating with women. The sincere women who wanted to associate with Him were advised to offer their obeisances from afar. Lord Chaitanya’s sannyasi associates were also prohibited from having intimate association with women. Does this mean that Lord Chaitanya wasn’t merciful to women?
“Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu never even joked with others’ wives. As soon as He saw a woman coming, He would immediately give her ample room to pass without talking.” (Chaitanya Bhagavata, Adi-khanda, Ch 15)
To understand Lord Chaitanya’s behavior, we have to understand the intricacies of the renounced order. The aim of human life is to rid ourselves of the desire to imitate God. This is done through rekindling our loving feelings towards Him. These feelings are aroused through the performance of devotional service. At the same time, our attachment to material nature is very strong. Attachment to sex life, the desire to associate with the opposite sex or the desire to act on the urges of the genitals, is the strongest. Therefore the entire Vedic system, dharma if you will, is focused on helping the individual break free of this attachment. From the time of birth all the way up until death, there are specific rules, regulations, and recommendations aimed at achieving the ultimate goal of life: Krishna consciousness. Those who are God conscious at the time of death get to ascend to the spiritual world, wherefrom they never have to return.
Sannyasa is the last stage of life. It is the spiritual institution where a person renounces everything except for service to Krishna. We can think of it as a purified form of retirement. When one is advanced in age, it means that death is coming closer. Therefore it becomes vitally important to adjust one’s behavior at this time to increase God consciousness. Strict sannyasa life can involve many different facets, but the most important regulation is the abstention from association with women. It is not divorce per se, but the husband separates from the wife permanently, leaving her in the care of the adult-aged children. This way the dependents are taken care of, leaving the man free to devote all his time towards pleasing Krishna.
Lord Chaitanya certainly didn’t need to take sannyasa. As the original Personality of Godhead Himself, He was untainted by maya, or the illusory energy governing the material world. Sex life is considered the greatest impediment towards spiritual enlightenment, the root cause behind the perpetual cycle of reincarnation. When sex life is used for begetting God conscious children, it is not tainted, but sex for any other purpose certainly is harmful. Therefore sex life is extremely regulated under the system of dharma instituted by Krishna. Though the restriction on association with women helps a transcendentalist escape the pitfalls of sex life, sannyasa actually has two other more important benefits, both of which apply to the area of preaching.
The first benefit to sannyasa is that of mobility. Who among us wouldn’t like to travel the world and visit different places? What keeps us from doing this? Obviously, our jobs, livelihoods, and family life keep us tied down. These three things bind us to our current location and limit our mobility. By taking to sannyasa, one gives up their mundane work and attachment to family and home. In this way, sannyasis are free to roam about the world. To meet the basic demands of the body, they must beg. It is strange in a sense that the highest stage of spiritual enlightenment involves begging for a living. Again, this facilitates the mobility aspect and also maintains the humility of the devotee. If we are humble at the time of death, we are more likely to think of the maintainer, the true provider for our sustenance: Shri Krishna.
Now of course there are some who abuse this system of charity and benevolence for their own benefit. They take to sannyasa so that they don’t have to work for a living. Ah, but the Vedas didn’t overlook this potential for abuse, for they even accounted for such a cheating mindset. The rules of sannyasa are very strict, especially when it comes to the area of begging. A sannyasi isn’t supposed to go to a home where he is expected to get plenty of food. Moreover, he is not to take more than he needs for that particular meal. In the sannyasa ashrama, there is no concept of stocking up food for a rainy day. There really isn’t anywhere to put the reserve food anyway, since the mendicant has no fixed placed of residence. On the next day of begging, the sannyasi is to pick a new home, a place he hasn’t visited recently. Goswami Tulsidas, the great Vaishnava poet and devotee of Lord Rama, took to the renounced order of life and really had no problem adhering to this system of begging. In fact, in his Dohavali, he mentions that his life was peaceful when he lived simply off begging, but as soon as he gained a little fame due to the popularity of his poetry, his peaceful life became disturbed. This was because people started offering him so many gifts, including food, as thanks for his wonderful poetry in praise of Rama. When one eats too much, their digestive balance gets altered. This imbalance negatively affects other areas of life as well. Tulsidas was a little agitated that his sannyasa lifestyle was altered due to the abundance of food he was receiving. This is a little humorous in a sense, since it shows that no good deed goes unpunished. People loved Tulsidas so much that they didn’t want him to have to beg for anything. They were willing to give the world to him as thanks for his praise of Shri Rama. Lord Chaitanya faced similar issues, as many well-wishers would often donate loads of sumptuous food to Him. The wives of His associates would prepare the most tasty sweets and prasadam meals and then offer them to Him when they would see Him.
The other more important benefit to sannyasa is gravitas, or reputation. A first class sannyasi is a preacher. He goes door to door begging for food, and in exchange he offers the householder sound words of advice from the Vedas. The ultimate instruction in the Vedas is that one should be attached to God instead of material nature. This message is so powerful and rooted in logic that anyone can preach it. Krishna consciousness is not dependent on any outward dress or position in life. Whether a person is a man, woman, child, sannyasi, or householder, they are equally as eligible for returning back home, back to Godhead. Yet as we all know, anyone who takes to preaching or teaching is bound to be up for scrutiny. Leeches, naysayers, and the lowest of mankind don’t want to surrender unto the Supreme Lord. Since their ultimate conclusions are not based on any logical truths or reality, they have no way to cut down the arguments of the bona fide preachers. Therefore they will take to ad hominem attacks, going after the character of those preaching the message of universal love and respect for Krishna.
Ad hominem attacks are most prevalent in the arena of politics. Such tactics are deemed fallacies because they don’t tackle the issues in question. For example, if Person A says “Be devoted to Krishna”, and Person B counters with, “Person A is fat and thus can’t be trusted”, they haven’t really addressed the claims made by Person A. In the same way, the message of the Vedas is pure and uncontaminated, so anyone who teaches it to others surely is doing the greatest service to mankind. Yet others will undoubtedly take to attacking their character as a way of cutting down arguments.
In the political arena, the attacks often focus on the friends and family members of the people running for office. “Oh so and so has a daughter who had a child out of wedlock…Such and such person was involved in extramarital affairs…Such and such person doesn’t know how many homes they own…Such and such person is too young.” In a similar manner, non-devotees will attack devotees of Krishna for being attached to family life, work, and women. The sannyasa ashrama provides the best possible insulation from these attacks. You can’t attack someone for being attached to sex life if they live as a mendicant without any family. You can’t attack someone for being attached to fruitive activity if they don’t work for anyone. You can’t attack someone for being attached to vanity and material possessions if they have a shaved head and walk around wearing a saffron robe. The only instances where personal attacks aren’t necessarily fallacies is when they relate to hypocrisy. If a political figure or preacher says one thing, but then doesn’t abide by their own teachings, it takes away from their message and the honesty of their character.
Sannyasa gave Lord Chaitanya gravitas amongst the other sectors of society. Lord Chaitanya obviously didn’t need to renounce anyone or anything for His own salvation, but since He wanted to teach others about Krishna consciousness, He wanted to establish a good reputation. Goswami Tulsidas’ wife sternly rebuked him one time for being too attached to her. Taking her words to heart, Tulsidas immediately accepted the renounced order of life and never looked back. A sannyasi is strictly prohibited from having intimate association with women, for adherence to this restriction is the greatest source of their gravitas, next to the actual message they are preaching. Lord Chaitanya associated with many other devotees and granted them His mercy. Though He stayed away from women in public, He still encountered a few every now and then. Most of them were wives of His close friends and associates. The Vedas instruct us to view every woman, except our own wife, as our mother.
“Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu said to Govinda, ‘O adi-vasya [uncivilized man], do not forbid this woman to climb the Garuda-stambha. Let her see Lord Jagannatha to her satisfaction.’” (Chaitanya Charitamrita, Antya 14.26)
What’s ironic is that a woman actually once touched Lord Chaitanya by accident when He was a sannyasi. She was in the temple of Lord Jagannatha, and since she was so eager to see the deity, she climbed on top of a column to get a better view. In so doing, her feet accidentally touched Lord Chaitanya. The Lord’s associates thought that He would get angry over such an offense, but instead, He appreciated the woman’s level of devotion. This shows that Shri Gaurahari certainly didn’t exclude women from the practice of devotional service.
A stereotype attached to Vedic life is that women are somehow subjugated, or treated as second class citizens. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The “subjugated” term is quite humorous in a sense. Any individual soul who is trapped in a material body is referred to as dehinam in Sanskrit, which means embodied. This speaks to the fact that there is no concept of freedom in the material world. Free will is a characteristic of the soul, but the results of free action are in the hands of the divine forces. Every person, man, woman, animal, plant, etc., is a slave to the forces of nature. This is evidenced by the fact that none of us can control the time of our death. We have no idea when death will come, nor do we know any way to stop it.
Even though every living entity is embodied, they take on different material qualities based on past work and desire. Therefore each person has natural activities they are suited for, and if these activities are performed in accordance with dharma, one remains completely on the liberated path. For women, their dharma is to stay under the protection of their father, husband, or eldest son. For the men, their duty is to provide complete protection to their dependents, which include wives and children.
At first glance, this seems like a sort of slavery or forced dependence. As mentioned before, there is no such thing as independence in an embodied form. Rather, true independence can only come from dependence on the right entity. Society is at peace when the brahmanas, the priestly class, are completely dependent on Krishna for everything. The king is then dependent on the brahmanas, the male head of the family on the king, the wife on the husband, the child on the mother, etc. In this way, there is an intricate chain of dependency that has at its root the Supreme Lord.
Vedic literature is full of examples of chaste and devoted women who had complete knowledge on spirituality and devotion to Krishna. Though women such as Kunti Devi, Sita Devi, Savitri, and Arundhati were all “subjugated” under today’s definition, they were completely independent in their thoughts and deeds. True independence comes from dependence on the Lord. The modern day notion of independence has only led to disaster for both men and women. The women are now left to be exploited by the men wanting easy sex life, and the men are tied down to worldly life due to their unsatisfied sexual desires. In the Vedic system where the men and women know their roles in marriage, there is ample time for spiritual life and the acquisition of knowledge pertaining to the soul and the meaning of life.
Goswami Tulsidas states that when the servant properly serves the master, they actually surpass the master in stature. As an example, he points to the fact that Lord Hanuman leaped over the ocean to Lanka, while Lord Rama walked across a bridge. Lord Rama, a famous incarnation of Krishna, had to rescue His wife Sita Devi from the island kingdom of Lanka. Enlisting the help of a band of Vanaras, Rama was able to have a bridge constructed, which allowed Him to cross the ocean and take on Sita’s captor, Ravana, in battle. Shri Hanuman, the most faithful and dear servant of Rama, had previously leapt his way to Lanka and found Sita’s whereabouts. Since Hanuman was the most sincere servant, Rama allowed him to become more exalted than Himself.
This is the secret behind devotional service. When we declare full dependence on the Lord, He actually takes the necessary steps to make us greater than Himself. This is all done through His effort. Lord Chaitanya, though a sannyasi who avoided the association of women, established that the highest practitioners of bhakti-yoga are the gopis of Vrindavana. This is not a mistake; Lord Chaitanya declared that the most exemplary devotees, those we should all model our services after, are cowherd girls, those who are considered unintelligent by the material estimation. Since the gopis of Vrindavana renounced everything and everyone, including their husbands, in favor of serving Krishna, their love for Him remains unmatched. Since they completely became dependent on Krishna for everything, they became fully independent in their love. The gopis’ love for Krishna is so strong that not even Krishna Himself can stop them from serving Him. Usually we engage in loving service to please someone else. In spiritual life, the person we are trying to please is Krishna. So it would make sense that if He asked us to stop serving Him, we’d listen. The gopis, however, are so convinced of the superiority of loving service to the Lord that even when Krishna tries to stop them for whatever reason, they refuse.
Though Lord Chaitanya abided by the regulations of the sannyasa order to maintain the good standing of His preaching, His mercy still reached everyone. Anyone who has ever chanted Hare Krishna has received the mercy of Lord Chaitanya. The true depth of His love for humanity can never fully be known, but the more we understand Him, the more we will realize just how kind and merciful He was. Many brahmanas of His time did not like His teaching methods. Krishna is known as brahmanya-devaya, or the God of the brahmanas. Since Lord Chaitanya was freely distributing love for Krishna to all of society, many brahmanas did not like that they had to now share Krishna with others. Thus Lord Chaitanya was often criticized and ridiculed by the unintelligent. In order to maintain the good name of His movement, Lord Chaitanya took care to always display exemplary behavior. This ensured that as many people as possible would take to the chanting of the holy names of the Lord, the only effective religious practice for this age. Any person, regardless of their race or gender, can receive Lord Chaitanya’s mercy by chanting the names of Krishna and Rama and by hearing about God’s wonderful pastimes found in books like the Shri Chaitanya Charitamrita. Shri Gaurahari is the most merciful incarnation of Godhead, and His mercy is for everyone.