“Can a female be guru?” is a frequently asked question. Such a question did not arise in the minds of people a few decades ago because people in general, and in India specifically, were clear about their identities and roles. With the advancement of technology and science, our lifestyles have changed drastically. This has also brought about an immense change in our identities and roles. There are no watertight boundaries for gender-based roles and responsibilities. The general understanding is that all human beings are equal and that there should be no discrimination on the basis of gender. Although such is the trend, yet we see that there are certain areas in which a particular gender seems prominent.
The post of guru is generally dominated by males. Not only that, there is an unwritten belief in the minds of many that only males can function as gurus. Some are making an attempt to turn this into an ordinance. Is this valid?
The answer depends on what sort of pramāṇa one accepts. There is a popular saying in Sanskrit, mānādhīnā meya-siddhir māna-siddhistu lakṣaṇāt, “Knowledge of a subject depends on a valid means and a valid means is understood from its definition.” Therefore, the first thing to be ascertained is the valid means of acquiring knowledge or pramāṇa. Those who do not accept scriptural authority, śāstra-pramāṇa, will reply to the above question on the basis of logic, human rights, and/or personal experience. Such replies do not concern us. A guru means a spiritual teacher, and spirituality is not subject to logic, human rights, or to one’s empirical experience. Śāstra is the only pramāṇa for spirituality. Therefore, we will investigate the above question solely on the basis of śāstra.
Different schools accept different śāstras as pramāṇas. As Gauḍīya Vaiṣnavas, our pramāṇas for spiritual subjects are the bhakti-śāstras; among them, Bhāgavata Purāṇa is supreme. Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī has categorically established this in Tattva Sandarbha (Anucchedas 9-29). One may read that part for understanding why we accept Bhāgavata Purāṇa as the supreme pramāṇa. Besides Bhāgavata Purāṇa, we accept Upaniṣads, Vedānta-sūtra, Bhagavad Gītā and the books of our predecessor ācāryas, such as the Gosvāmīs of Vṛndāvana, as pramāṇa. The latter are primarily based upon Bhāgavata Purāṇa. We also accept Purāṇas, Smṛtis and Āgamas that do not contradict Bhāgavata Purāṇa as pramāṇa. Anything that goes against the spirit of Bhāgavata Purāṇa is not acceptable to Gaudīya Vaiṣnavas. So, let us investigate the above question based on this main pramāṇa.
There are various references to guru in Bhāgavata Purāṇa but there is no prohibition against a female becoming guru. However, one may argue that all references to guru are in the masculine gender i.e., the word “guru,” which has been used repeatedly is in the masculine gender. There is no usage of the feminine gender form, gurvī, anywhere in Bhāgavata Purāṇa. One may argue that this proves that a female guru is not recommended in Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Similarly, Hari-bhakti-vilāsa, the smṛti for Gaudīya Vaiṣṇavas, lists the qualification of a guru in verses 1.38 to 1.55. Here again there is no mention of a female guru. The same analysis can be applied to other śāstra such as Bhagavad Gītā. One could argue that these pramāṇas conclusively show that śāstra prescribes only a male guru, and thus a female is not qualified to be guru.
Such a conclusion, however, is not proper. First of all, there is no explicit prohibition for a female to become guru in any of these śāstras. Secondly, when the word “guru,” which is in the masculine gender, is used, it is inclusive of a female guru. When the characteristics of a class are described, the description is given for a single gender, but it similarly applies to the other gender also. This is the standard principle used in Sanskrit grammar—prātipadika-grahaṇe liṅga-viśiṣṭasyāpi grahaṇam (Vyādi-paribhāṣā 25, cited in Harināmāmṛta-vyākaraṇam 2.73, 6.32). For example, if one wants to describe the qualities of a dog of a particular breed, then it is common to use the male gender word “dog.” It is understood that this word is also applicable to a female of that particular breed. A gender-specific description will be given if there are differences in the characteristics of the male and female pertinent to that specific topic. Therefore, when it is said that a guru should be an expert in śāstra and in realization of the Absolute (śābde pare ca niṣṇātam SB 11.3.21), or that he should be a jñānī and tattvadarśī (BG 4.34), this certainly does not mean that it is applicable only to a male guru. The statement is applicable to anyone who takes the post of guru regardless of gender. For example, in Hari-bhakti-vilāsa (1.59-63), although the qualities of a disciple are described by the use of the masculine form, such qualities obviously apply to a female disciple also. The same is true of the description of the qualities of a devotee given in many places in scripture. Such descriptions apply to every devotee irrespective of gender. Similarly, qualifications for a guru as described in scripture are applicable to both male and female gurus. In these descriptions, there is no intention to prohibit a female from becoming a guru.
Amarakośa (2.6.14), a well-respected lexicon of Sanskrit, gives separate words for the wife of an ācārya and for a female ācāryā; the word ācārya is a synonym for the word “guru.” Amarakośa refers to the wife of an ācārya as ācāryānī, whereas a female ācārya is called ācāryā. Similarly, it calls a female teacher of a part of Veda upādhyāyā or upādhyāyī. The wife of an upādhyāya, however, is called an upādhyāyānī (Harināmāmṛta-vyākaraṇam 7.225, 226). This is also stated in Siddhānta-kaumudi (505, Pāṇiṇi-sutra 4.1.49). Separate words for the wives of an ācārya and for an upādhyāya, and for females who are themselves ācāryās and upādhyāyās, would not exist in the Sanskrit lexicon and grammar if female gurus did not exist in the past.
Furthermore, every Sanskrit word has meaning, and there is an eternal relation between the word (śabda) and its referent. This is stated by Patañjali in his Mahābhāṣya, which is the most authentic commentary on the Pāṇini-sūtras and is accepted on par with the sūtras. In the entire Sanskrit literature, Patañjali’s commentary is the only one called mahābhāṣya, while others are called bhāṣya. Patañjali writes, siddhe śabdārtha-sambandhe lokto’rtha-prayukte śabda-prayoge śāstreṇa dharma-niyamo yathā laukika-vaidikeṣu (1.1 Paspaśā, Mahābhāṣya). Here he clearly states that the relation between a word and its referent is siddha, or eternal. This is also understood from Yoga-sūtra (3.17). Bhartṛhari explains that a śabda has the natural capacity to express its referent, just as our senses have the natural ability to sense their respective objects:
indriyāṇāṁ sva-viṣayeṣu anādir yogyatā yathā
anādirarthaiḥ śabdānām sambandho yogyatā tathā
(Vakya-padīyam Pada-sambandha 29)
Nyāya-sūtra (2.11.56) also says, sāmayikatvāt śabdārthasambandhasya, “The relation between a word and its reference is conventional.” From this, it is understood that there must have been female gurus in the past because a corresponding word exists for them in the Sanskrit lexicon as well as in the grammar. Thus, it would be wrong to conclude that female gurus did not exist in the past.
A pūrvapakśa can be raised for the above logic. There are statements in Bhāradvāja Saṁhitā which categorically forbid a woman to be a guru. The relevant verses are as follows [Note: The translation of the verses from Bhāradvāja Saṁhitā are not mine. They were sent by a questioner.]
na jātu mantra-dā nārī na śūdro nāntarodbhavaḥ |
nābhiśasto na patitaḥ kāma-kāmo ’py akāminaḥ ||42||
Even then, a woman, a śūdra, and an antyaja can never act as initiating gurus, nor can anyone who is accused of a great sin or is fallen. And an aspiring disciple who is already accomplished in detachment (akāmī) should never accept a guru who is infected with material desires.
striyaḥ śūdrādayaś caiva bodhayeyur hitāhitam |
yathārhaṁ mānanīyāś ca nārhanty ācāryatāṁ kvacit ||43||
Women, śūdras, etc., can give ethical and moral instructions and are also worthy of respect as per their qualifications and conditions but are not entitled to get the position of ācārya.
These statements seem to clearly prohibit a woman from taking the role of an initiating guru. My reply to this is that if this prohibition was acceptable to our previous ācāryas, then why did they not refer to these verses? In the first vilāsa of Hari-bhakti-vilāsa, there is an elaborate discussion about the characteristics of both qualified and unqualified gurus. However, there is no prohibition mentioned for a woman to become guru, neither in the original text nor in its commentary by Śrī Sanātana Gosvāmī. Similarly, Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī discusses both the qualified and unqualified guru in Bhakti Sandarbha. But he makes no statement prohibiting a woman from becoming a guru. We also do not find any such statement in the writings of other ācāryas of our sampradaya, such as Nārāyaṇa Bhaṭṭa, Śrī Kavi Karṇapūra Gosvāmī, Śri Viṣvanātha Cakravarti, and Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa.
Moreover, if we accept Bhāradvāja Saṁhitā as our pramāṇa, then we would have also to accept that it allows only a brāhmaṇa to be a guru. It says:
prapitsur mantra-nirataṁ prājñaṁ hitaparaṁ śucim |
praśāntaṁ niyataṁ vṛttau bhajed dvija-varaṁ gurum ||38||
“Thus, one who is desirous of surrendering with faith, should take shelter of a guru who is always engaged in chanting the mantra and is a knower of bhakti-siddhānta (prājñam), is always engaged, without any desire for personal benefit, in showering mercy on fallen souls (hita-param), who is always pure in heart or free of sins, peaceful, and always committed to his prescribed duties (ordained by his guru or by varṇāśrama). Such a guru should be the best of the twice-born (dvija-varam meaning brāhmaṇa).”
The book also defines who is a brāhmaṇa in the following verse from Bhāradvāja Saṁhitā (cited from the Wisdom Library):
jāta-karmādibhir-yastu saṁkāraiḥ saṁskṛtaḥ śuciḥ
vedādhyayana-sampannaḥ ṣaḍ saṭ karmasvasthitaḥ
śaucācārasthitaḥ samyag vighasāśī gurupriyaḥ
nityabralī satyaparaḥ sa vai brāhmaṇa ucyate
[Bharadvāja Muni said, “O best of the twice-born, Ṛṣi among the brāhmaṇas, best of the orators of Vedic knowledge, kindly instruct us in the differences between brāhmaṇas, kṣatriyas, vaiśyas, and śūdras.” Bhṛgu Muni replied]:
“One whose birth and subsequent works have all been purified by the appropriate saṁskāras, who has the qualities of purity and cleanliness, who is devoted to Vedic study, who performs worship of the Supreme Lord, Viṣṇu, and who instructs others in that worship, who is a paragon of the six activities of a brāhmaṇa, whose behavior is never impure, who eats the remnants of his guru’s prasāda, who is dear to the guru, who always carefully follows his vows, and who is fixed in the truth, is known as a brāhmaṇa.” (14.96 Bhāradvāja Saṁhitā)
According to this definition of a brāhmaṇa, the majority of male gurus of the Gauḍīya sampradaya would not meet the qualifications. The verse requires a guru to have undergone the various saṁskāras, beginning from one’s birth. These saṁskāras are described in smṛti-śāstras. They also require birth in a brāhmaṇa family. According to the smṛtis, these saṁskāras cannot be performed for one who is not born to brāhmaṇa parents. The above verse from Bhāradvāja Saṁhitā also talks about the six activities of a brāhmaṇa: studying śāstra, teaching śāstra, performing yajña for oneself, performing yajña for others as a priest, giving charity, and accepting charity. If we apply this definition of a brāhmaṇa, then most gurus of the Gauḍīya sampradāya would not qualify. If, however, we do not accept this definition, then we apply śāstra selectively. That is considered a defect—ardha-kukkuṭī-nyāya. This means we accept what is convenient and reject what is troublesome.
Instead of searching for statements in Vedic literature to support one’s views, one should carefully study one’s tradition and the foundational books of one’s sampradāya. As mentioned before, there are no statements in Bhāgavata Purāṇa that prohibit women from becoming guru. Even when our ācāryas, namely Śrī Sanātana Gosvāmī and Śrī Jīva Goswamī, extensively discuss the qualifications of a guru, they do not cite any verses that prohibit women from becoming guru. Anyone with basic Sanskrit grammar knowledge would not misinterpret the masculine use of the word guru to indicate an exclusion of female gurus; rather, the word refers to both masculine and feminine genders as a class.
It is a fact that in various Gauḍīya Vaiṣnava traditional lineages, there have been many female gurus who gave dīkṣā. Some of them were very prominent but there have also been many others who may not be well-known outside their particular lines. For example, women have always been gurus in the Advaita vaṁśa, extending from Advaita Ācārya’s wife Sītā Ṭhākurānī down to this very day. Such female gurus mostly functioned within the family, giving dīkṣā to their sons or daughters-in-law, although now there are women functioning as dīkṣā gurus who are not the direct descendants of Śrī Advaita Ācārya. Probably the most prominent female Gauḍīya guru after Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu was Nityānanda Prabhu’s wife Jāhnavī Devī. Virabhadra (or Viracandra) Gosvāmī, who is described in Gaura-gaṇoddeśa dīpikā as an avatāra of Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu, took dīkṣā from her. In my own paramparā from Śrī Gadādhara Paṇḍita, there are four female gurus, ācaryās.
In conclusion, neither the Gauḍīya Vaiṣnava tradition nor the Gauḍīya Vaiṣnava pramāṇas oppose women from acting as guru. The qualifications of a guru—deep knowledge of scriptures and experience of Param Tattva—do not depend upon gender.