Saturday, June 14, 2014

Women Saints in Gaudiya Vaishnavism (Part II)

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III. Women saints in the modern era

The primary source of information for women saints of the modern period is O.B.L. Kapoor's Hindi Braj ke bhakta(46) Altogether, there are only twelve woman saints described in Braj ke bhakta, of which only five can be considered Gaudiyas. Though these women are respected for their saintliness, only one (Sadhu Ma) is a leader in the sense of being an initiating guru. It is no coincidence that she was born into one of the great Gaudiya initiating families, that of Advaita Acharya. Otherwise, they were all also born in well-to-do families. Of the three who were Bengali, all were Brahmins.

All twelve women whose biographies appear in Kapoor's book are renunciates, showing perhaps more the bias of what that author expected a "saint” to be like, and are thus not necessarily representative of true saintliness. Taken as a whole, the women of Braj ke bhakta show, as might be expected, a decided tendency to the vātsalya or parental type of devotion. One outstanding exception to this is, of course, that of Srimati Devi, whose taste leaned to the sakhya or "the friendly mood," as will be described below.

1. Pishima Goswamini

Chandrashashi Mukhopadhyay, later known as Pishima Goswamini, is the only woman mentioned in Haridas Das's Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava Jīvanī. (47) Her story centers around the Gaur-Nitai deities who are found today in Vrindavan in Banakhandi near Loy Bazaar. These deities at one time belonged to Chaitanya’s childhood companion Murari Gupta, whose name is carved on the base of one of the statues. They were apparently lost at one time and later rediscovered in Siuri in Birbhum district in northwestern Bengal. A wandering Orissan monk, Balaram Das Babaji, while passing through Siuri had a dream in which he was instructed to take over the service of the deities. Not long thereafter, the daughter of a wealthy landowner in Nadia district, Chandrashashi, at the time only twenty years old, came to Siuri for business reasons. She became attracted to the deities and attended services regularly in the temple while there. One night she had a dream in which Gaura-Nitai came to her in the form of young boys and said that they were very hungry and wanted her to feed them khir. Because she had not been initiated, Balaram Das was not prepared to give food prepared by her to the deities, so she took initiation from him so that she could comply with Gaura-Nitai's request

A few days later, when she was about to leave Siuri for home, she had another dream in which Gaura-Nitai begged her not to leave, for otherwise who would give them such good things to eat. Like children, they tugged on her skirts and even tore off a piece of her cloth. Chandrashashi awoke with a start and saw that her cloth was indeed torn. She went to Balaram Das who found the missing bit of cloth in the hands of the deity of Gaura. From that day on, she abandoned any intention of returning home to her village and decided to stay on in the service of Gaura-Nitai.

Not long thereafter, however, speculations about the nature of her relation with the monk Balaram Das started in the town. Balaram Das and Chandrashashi decided, again on the basis of instructions given to them in a dream, to take Gaura-Nitai with them to live in Vrindavan. They placed the deities on a boat and made the 1600 km. trip along the Ganges and Jamuna to Braj. Chandrashashi, known in Braj as Pishima ("aunt") managed to build a new temple in Banakhandi for the deities who became known locally as Pishima's Gaura-Nitai.

One of the interesting legends concerning Pishima Goswamini is the following. One day, while preparing a meal for Gaura-Nitai, whom she treated as her own children, her menses started, rendering her ritually impure for service to the deities. This interruption greatly distressed her. When she nodded off to sleep, Gaura-Nitai came to her and told her that just as an ordinary mother does not interrupt her service to her own children while menstruating, neither should she. Furthermore, they assured her, she would be liberated from this discomfort from that day on. She bathed and made the food offering to the deities and never again experienced the female cycle.

Pishima Goswamini led a strict life according to the Vaishnava regulations, bathing in the Jamuna three times a day, chanting on her rosary daily, etc., but her real focus was on archana deity worship. She was engaged in a quasi-constant conversation with Gaura-Nitai, who also appeared occasionally to other people to demand various types of service, etc. Later, when she was old and no longer personally bathed the deities or rendered other types of service, she still was able to know whether things were going in the desired manner by this personal communication. In a typical account, when on one cold winter morning Pishima's successor, Gopishwar Goswami, bathed Gaur-Nitai with cold water, she divined the blunder when she saw that the deities had running noses. To Gopishwar Goswami's amazement, she ran a handkerchief over their noses to show him the proof that they had caught colds due to his carelessness.

Haridas Das recounts that Gopishwar Goswami personally told him that when Pishima Goswamini first asked him to take over the service of Gaur Nitai, he complained that he felt no pleasure in serving such small deities as he did not have the same type of parental affection as she, but was rather moved by the sentiment of friendship. He said that Pishima then went to the deities, pulled on their chins and they changed size to take on their present form.(48)

2. Ma Yashoda (d. 1944)(49)

Ma Yashoda is known more through her relationship with her disciple, Krishna Prem, than for her own achievements. Sri Krishna Prem, or Ronald Nixon (b.1898), was a British pilot in the First World War who felt that he had been miraculously saved in the course of a mission in Germany. After the war, Nixon undertook a spiritual search that led him to India. A degree holder from Cambridge, he taught English at Lucknow University while staying in the home of the Vice-chancellor, Jnanendranath Chakravarty, a leader of the Theosophist movement. Manika Devi, the wife of the Vice-chancellor, was also a highly educated woman and had maternal feelings for Nixon, calling him Gopal, as many Bengali mothers call their sons. As Nixon recounted to the Bengali singer and bhakta Dilip Ray, Mrs. Chakravarty was heavily involved in her husband's rather busy Western-style social life. As he himself took an increasing interest in Buddhism and Hinduism, studying Sanskrit and Pali, Nixon observed that even within her superficially mundane life, she exuded a spiritual peace. He noticed that she disappeared from the scene during parties and returned rejuvenated. Curious, he followed her on one such occasion and saw her absorbed in a deep meditation. Upon being questioned, she explained to him that she and her husband had developed an interest in Vaishnavism and had been initiated by Balakrishna Goswami of the Radharaman family in Vrindavan. Impressed, Nixon then asked to be initiated by her. Eventually he asked to take sannyas from her, and in order to be able to do so, she herself went to Vrindavan and there took sannyas so that she could give him this initiation too. The name Yasoda Ma was given to her on this occasion, while Krishna Prem was the sannyas name given to Nixon.

Abandoning academic life, the two of them went to Mirtola, near Almora in the Himalayan foothills, where they founded an ashram which they called "Uttara Vrindavan." They installed a Radha-Krishna murtis. She taught local children to read and write and opened a dispensary, while Krishna Prem wrote several books and attracted a number of Englishmen as well as Indians to become his disciples.

In her childhood, while living at Ghazipur, Yasoda Ma had had several formative experiences with holy men. As a girl of twelve or thirteen, she was chosen as a representative of the goddess at a Kumari-puja in which Swami Vivekananda himself offered flowers to her feet On another occasion she had heard that a local yogi, Pawhari Baba was giving a free cloth and kamandalu to all monks who came to his cave. Curious about how he could fit the large amounts of cloth, etc., that would be required to make this gift, she disguised herself as a boy and stood in line as the goods were handed out. When it came her turn, she jumped into the small space of his grotto and saw that it was empty. Through this act, she showed a great deal of daring; her discovery produced in her a lifelong belief in miracles.

Yashoda Ma had a deep emotional attachment to her deities in the parental mood and had a number of extraordinary experiences with her Gopal deity that she recounted to Dilip Ray.

3. Siddheshvari Devi, Sadhu Ma (d. 1944)(50)

The daughter of Govinda Chandra Goswami in Pabna district of Bangla Desh, she was a descendant of Chaitanya's associate Advaita Acharya. Born during the annual Durga Puja festival, her father considered her to be an incarnation of Yogamaya. From her childhood, she showed a devotional propensity and studied the scriptures under her father who also initiated her. She took sannyas after the death of her father (wearing saffron cloth like Prabodhananda Saraswati). Although still a young girl, she wandered throughout India visiting all the major places of pilgrimage, depending on God alone for her protection. She met the famous Shakta Bama Khepa at Tarapith, who told her to spend some time at Belur and then to go to Vrindavan. It is said that Bama Khepa also recognized her as an incarnation of Yogamaya.

When she finally came and settled in Vrindavan, she eventually built a large ashram dedicated to Radha Kunjakishori near the Ranganathji temple gardens. She had hundreds of Punjabi and Bengali disciples, including many who were prominent and wealthy citizens, and eventually built other temples and ashrams in Belur, Govardhan, Bhubaneswar, Chakratirtha (Puri), etc.

In the tradition of the Advaita family, she strictly followed the Hari-bhakti-vilāsa, even instituting regular performances of fire sacrifices in all her temples except in Braj where she supposedly had a vision of Radha who prohibited such rituals as unnecessary. She loved rāsa-līlā performances, but is said to have fainted once on hearing Mahaprabhu's sannyāsa being sung. Like many of the other powerful women devotees of Braj, she placed a lot of emphasis on service to the devotees who all called her mother. She had dealings with some of Braj’s stranger characters like Gwariya Baba.

4. Srimati Devi(51)

Interesting in view of the accepted wisdom that women saints in Indian religions are comfortable in their sexual identity in contrast with men who often, and particularly in Radha-Krishna worship, seek a female identification,(52) is the story of Srimati Devi. O.B.L. Kapoor recounts her legend in connection with Krishnananda Swami, a Punjabi disciple of the Nityananda family descendant Pran Gopal Goswami (d. 1955). Though initiated in the Gaudiya tradition by a staunch promoter of the manjari mood of devotion, Krishnananda worshiped Krishna in the friendly mood (sakhya). Though his guru wanted him to take disciples and preach devotion to Krishna, Krishnananda Swami was reluctant to do so because he wished to avoid the association of women. For years he had kept the vow that he would never look upon the face of a woman and this continued to keep this vow until he came in contact with the eleven-year old girl named Srimati Devi.

Srimati Devi lived in the village of Nagla Lakshmanpur within the Braj area. Widowed at the age of eleven, she devoted herself fully to the worship of her Krishna deity. She herself had a tendency to the friendly mood of devotion and had hear of Krishnananda Swami and had become attached to the idea of becoming his disciple. Eventually, at the insistence of some of her relatives, Krishnananda Swami wrote the maha mantra on a piece of paper and some instructions in how to worship Krishna.

Srimati Devi still wished to see her guru and vowed that until she saw him, she would not go outside in the light of day. She would rise at four in the morning and bathe, then sit indoors, chanting the holy names until sunset She kept this up for three years, but still she was not given the opportunity to see her guru. Finally, she stopped all food and drink and had thus been fasting for nine days when Krishnananda had a vision in which Balaram told him that he could break his vow for her sake.

After making this breakthrough and receiving personal contact with her guru, Srimati Devi quickly attained perfection in the friendly mood. She began to dress like a boy; her behavior, her language, etc., all took on the characteristics of a cowherd boyfriend of Krishna and people even began to call her bhaiya ("brother"). She became progressively absorbed in a total consciousness of Krishna's presence.

Her health was poor and she did not live much longer after this. One day, when her guru came to visit her, he took her head in his lap and she said, "Buddy, let's go. Look, Balaram and Krishna are calling their friends to come.” Krishnananda Swami replied, overcome with emotion, "Go ahead, buddy. I’ll be right along." Having received this permission from her guru, she entered the eternal world of Braj.

5. Glrija Devi(53)

Girija Devi was the wife of a rich landowner in Jamira in the state of Bihar, and was thus habituated to a life of great luxury. She started to lose her interest in family life, however, when her oldest son died at the age of eighteen, followed shortly thereafter by the death of her second son. In her grief she became indifferent to food and drink. Her husband asked his family guru for advice, and the guru began to read Bhagavata Purana to her with to calm her. The result of these readings was that she began to develop an interest in devotion to Krishna and then a desire to move to Braj. Despite the family tradition that kept strict purdah on its women, her husband eventually gave her permission to go.

In Vrindavan Girija Devi rented a room in the Radharamana Ghera and quickly began to experience visions of the deity, Radharaman. Radharani would appear to her to complain about imperfections in the service that would have been impossible for an outsider to know about. On occasion, Radharaman spoke to her by possessing one of the temple priests and speaking through him.

Girija Devi smoked tobacco from a hookah and maintained other habits from her days in Bihar, as a result of which she was not always looked upon with faith, but eventually such inexplicable events caused the sevayats of Radharaman to revere her. Even so, Nilamani Goswami, her landlord, once decided to evict her in order to rent out the house at a higher rent. On the very day he made this decision, but before he could carry out his plan, on returning to his own home, he found that neither he nor any of his companions was able to open the locked door, even though he had the key. Another neighbor, a woman devotee, suggested to him that he had perhaps offended Girija Devi and that if she gave permission he would be able to open the door. Nilamani went to her and asked her to open the door. Much to her own astonishment, she was able to unlock the padlock and the door opened. They attributed the mysterious event to the workings of Radharaman himself.

After the death of her husband, Girija Devi spent the remainder of her days in Jamira, maintaining her devotional practices while running the family estate through agents.


Conclusions

June McDaniel notes in a recent study of Bengali religion that during her fieldwork it was virtually impossible for her to find a Vaishnava holy woman. (54) This suggests that a certain disdain of women continues to exist in orthodox Vaishnava circles today, despite the achievements of a few exceptional women at various points in Gaudiya Vaishnava history. The fear of sahajiyaism may have something to do with this. The ascetic community endeavors to maintain its purity by following the principles of sexual segregation standardized by Chaitanya as far as possible. Vaishnavas who allow women of any age or marital status to stay in their ashrams at night are called kunja-vasis and have the lowest status. Those who speak to women in daytime are called thora-vasis, while those who refuse to have anything at all to do with women are known as vana-vasis. These latter Vaishnavas are given the highest status in the renunciate community. Kunja-vasis are routinely suspected of sahajiya practice. The problems faced by Pishima Goswamini in the early part of her relationship with Balaram Das are typical of those that face any women who wish to practice a life of asceticism. Outside the realm of the ascetics, in the entirely different world of the goswamis and householder Vaishnavas, the wives of the Prabhusantans have always been strong leaders amongst the women of their communities, occasionally stepping in, like Jahnava, to exercise greater influence.

It should be stated that here, as elsewhere, history is generally written by men about men. How many thousands of women in every religious tradition have led quiet lives of simple sanctity and asceticism, and been passed over by the few historians who have written about these matters only by virtue of their sex? Nevertheless, despite the limited numbers of examples that we have been able to find of women whose accomplishments as gurus, saints and devotees have penetrated into the consciousness of the males around them, their examples should be sufficient to continue to inspire devotee women. Besides these, there is ample basis in the Gaudiya Vaishnava symbols, theology and spiritual ideals to give room for women to assert themselves, if the inner call should come.


NOTES

46. 5 volumes, Mathura: Sri Krishnajanmasthan Seva Samsthan, 1981-2. This book has now been translated and published in English.

47. pp. 163-171. Haridas Das credits Haridas Goswami's Nitāi-Gaura-vigraha-lilā-kāhinī for most of the data used in his account. O.B.L. Kapoor (op. cit., Vol. 1, 193-212) has based his story primarily on that of Haridas Das.

48. Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava Jīvanī, 169.

49. The main source for the information given here is Yogi Sri Knshna Prem, by Dilip Kumar Ray (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1968). Also, O.B.L. Kapoor, (op. cit., Vol. 2, 124-169.

50. Braj ke bhakta, Vol. 4, 133-140.

51. Braj ke bhakta, Vol. 3, 132-3.

52. Cf. A. K. Ramanujan, "On Women Saints" in (ed.) J.S. Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, The Divine Consort (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1984 [1982]), 316.

53. Braj ke bhakta, 210-221.

54. The Madness of the Saints (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 192. In a footnote to this comment, she writes, “The general response of Vaishnava practitioners was a look of amazement, followed by, ‘A holy woman (sādhikā)? Why would you want to speak to one of them? Look at all the holy men who are here. They are much better to speak with.' None could or would suggest specific women to interview.”

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