(The following article is based upon information from www.bhaktiyoga.org.uk)
Women Saints in Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism
It is a fact that stalwart Vaiṣṇavas never seem to falter – they just persevere, no matter what kind of hardships they have to endure. Śrīmatī Kṛṣṇamayī Devī was one such Vaiṣṇavī. Great women Vaiṣṇavīs have existed throughout the ages, showing that the qualities of leadership, scholarship, intelligence, wisdom and devotion are an affair of the heart, not gender.
There are many examples of such women – even so, they are still very rare. The first woman to distinguish herself as the superlative Vaiṣṇavī five hundred years ago was unquestionably Śacī Devī, who appeared in Bengal in the mid Fifteenth Century. Playing the role of a perfect mother and wife, she was glorified as the mother of Śrī Caitanya and the wife of Jagannatha Misra. Indeed, if Śacī Devī was the perfect mother, Viṣṇupriyā was the perfect wife.
Viṣṇupriyā spent as much time with the Holy Name as she did with her beloved mother-in -law. And her reputation as a prominent ascetic soon grew. It is said that she would set aside one grain of rice for every Name she chanted in one day. When her utterances of nama-bhajana were completed at the end of the day, she would boil that amount of rice and take that as her meal. She is still glorified today for her dual role as an ideal chaste wife and an ascetic of the Vaiṣṇava tradition.
One of the more prominent woman gurus was Jāhnavā Devī, the consort of Nityānanda Prabhu (Śrī Caitanya’s intimate associate and plenary expansion). Her devotion was so intense that it endeared her to the pious and impious alike, and by her personal example she showed how to perform temple worship and how to devote one’s life to spiritual pursuits. She even presided over large Vaiṣṇava festivals and gave initiation to men and women alike. It was Jāhnavā Devī who had the insight to keep close contact with the Gosvāmīs of Vṛndāvana. In this way she sought to keep solidarity and unification between the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas in Bengal and in Vṛndāvana.
Śrīmatī Kṛṣṇamayī Devī was also such a Vaiṣṇavī – but despite so many good qualities and capabilities, she remained quiet and humble in the shadow of her guru, Śrīla Bhakti Rakṣaka Śrīdhara Deva Gosvāmī Mahārāja – the illustrious disciple of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura. When she was recently widowed, she decided to devote the remainder of her life to guru and Kṛṣṇa. She surrendered at the lotus feet of that great Vaiṣṇava with body and soul. Śrīmatī Kṛṣṇamayī Devī epitomized that kind of surrender. She served in the maṭha as a cook for thirty plus years before she was incapacitated by arthritis.
When asked what made her move into the maṭha. She replied simply, “Because I liked it there”. But her service attitude and her personal bhajana indicated a much deeper commitment than that. Her sobriety for proper implementation impressed Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja so much that, when he had to go on preaching tours leaving the maṭha, he would leave her as maṭha-in-charge until his return. So much faith he had in her capacity to stick to the siddhānta that in his earlier will, he named her as a successor several times, before she became physically incapacitated. She herself was a preacher of uncommon attributes as can be attested by her poetic Bengali composition on the “Auspicious Birth of Guru Mahārāja” which is now inscribed in marble on the south wall of Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja’s samādhi-mandira and the same poem was included in many Bengali publications during Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja’s time. According to literary Bengali, this poem is written in an erudite fashion of the old Bengali language using the classical style. In this way we can more appreciate Kṛṣṇamayī Devī’s uncommon humility in the face of her extraordinary capacities including that most difficult of all traits, tolerance. Many devotees, including Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja, considered her a śuddha-bhakta, a pure devotee of Lord Kṛṣṇa.
She appeared in Nagpur in December 1898 on Pūrṇīmā. Her family were high Smārta brāhmaṇas and they later settled in Tegharipāḍā in Navadvīpa. Her father was a lecturer at the local college and she was educated in the scriptures from an early age. Her husband was a chief auditor for the Indian Railways. They had a daughter but before they could have a son her husband died. She later adopted a boy by the name of Satya Hari who was also from a brāhmaṇa family. Satya Hari also worked on the railways and he later started his own business.
She was educated in Calcutta in her childhood. She proved early on to be of exceptional intellect. At only 11 years of age, she obtained excellence in many subjects because of her capabilities. She was accorded gold medals and honours from the famous Judge Sir Ashutosh Mukherji. Living in Navadvīpa, she was destined to meet Śrīdhara Mahārāja and become his disciple. When she became 40 years of age, she was fortunate to meet her spiritual master. Shortly thereafter, she received both hari-nāma and mantra initiations simultaneously from him and dedicated her life to the service of Śrī Guru and Śrī Gaurāṅga.
Śrīmatī Kṛṣṇamayī used to take her daily bath in the Ganges and she traveled there via the same route each day. However, when she heard of Śrīdhara Mahārāja she changed her route to the Ganga so that she could regularly listen to his hari-kathā. She would offer him flowers and Ganga water. This went on for about two and half years and then she then took hari-nāma initiation from him. She was about 37 years old at the time.
When her daughter had finished her studies and her adopted son had become financially self-sufficient, she gave up family life and went to live in the maṭha. At that time, she donated her property and money to Śrīdhara Mahārāja’s mission. This property included houses and land and was of significant value. Kṛṣṇamayī was wealthy and had given all she had for the service of Śrī Kṛṣṇa. Her agricultural land yielded a plentiful supply of rice and vegetables and the money she donated enabled building work to start so that other devotees could stay.
Because she was from a respected brāhmaṇa-parivāra in Navadvīpa, her initiation from a Vaiṣṇava guru caused a scandal in her family. As Smārtas they had always been opposed to the Gauḍīya Maṭha and their beloved daughter was leaving everything to enter the āśrama of her guru to serve him with all her heart. When interviewed about this she told that, “I came to the maṭha without telling my family members because there would have been an objection. They would have prevented me from coming. I came to live in the maṭha because I liked it. I asked an uncle for permission and he said, “Yes, there is a genuine holy man there.” My father did not approve of it so I had to come without his knowledge.”
At the maṭha she was given the responsibility to look after all the ladies, making garlands for the Deities, managing Śrīdhara Mahārāja’s room and preparing the type of water he liked to drink. Śrīdhara Mahārāja always had special affection for her due to her unalloyed devotion, honesty and dedication. He also appreciated her writings and poetry. He, himself, wrote a brief Sanskrit poem glorifying and describing her life. He included this in his Bengali rendition of Bhagavad-gītā, which she helped to finance. The Sanskrit poem composed by Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja is as follows:
śrīman-navadvīpe dhāmni teghari-vipra-vaṁśajaḥ
sva-nāmadhanya-sammanyo-vadānya atmavan kṛti
śrī vaidyanātha-śarmāsit dharma-niṣṭho jana-priyaḥ
“Born in Teghari district of the holy land of Navadvīpa, in the family of brāhmaṇas, valuing honour as his only wealth, Śrī Vaidyanātha Śarma was firm in dharma and dear to all.”
tat kanya puṇya-karmānya dhanya dharmānurāginī
tapasvinī pati-prāṇa vidūṣi vratacārinī
“His honourable daughter, whose happiness was in performing virtuous deeds, was yearning whole-hearted for dharma – renounced from all mundane, she dedicated herself to her husband, being very wise, and fulfilling all religious vows.”
śrī-kīraṇamayī nāmni devī tat pati-daivatāḥ
kalikata-nagaryaṁ yaḥ talapalli-nivāsakaḥ
vidvān vidvādvaren-yaśca śrīman sambhranta-vaṁśajaḥ
“Having faith in God, the brāhmaṇas and Śrī Guru, worshiping that One who is highly worthy of worship, she was named Śrī Kiraṇamayī (Kṛṣṇamayī’s birth name which means “radiant like the sun”). She was inseparably related with God, as well as her husband who was from the village of Talapalli in Kalikata. She was learned and appreciated by learned men; she was decorated with beauty herself, and high-born.”
dhīmanādhyapakaś-caiva matimān naya-kovidaḥ
śrīman makhana-lālas ca vandya-vaṁśa-vibhūṣaṇaḥ
evaṁ bhūtasya satasya svadhāma svāminas tathā
“Śrīman Makhana Lāla (Kṛṣṇamayī’s husband) was the worshippable ornament of his family. He had sacred knowledge and was also able to teach it; full of devotion and prudence, self-sacrificing and deep in understanding, Loved by all, their family was blooming, up to her husband’s sudden departure to his eternal abode.”
putrasya sneha-pātrasya paramārtha-prasādhika
“And then, although filled with maternal love, by the call of spiritual life, she abandoned everything she owned. To the lotus feet of Guru and Kṛṣṇa, she devoted herself, showing the way by engaging in different kinds of service in Their temple for Their pleasure.”
tan mudrāne ca mudrāda sādhuna sādhunārthita
“Now she is publishing the Bhagavad-gītā, which is the essence of all Vedic knowledge. For the joy of the sādhus we present this example of her saintly life, with a desire to achieve the same saintly aim.”
Śrīdhara Mahārāja stated that, “Kṛṣṇamayī Didi is a special devotee and we must always look after all her needs”.
She recalls about her life in the maṭha, “I prepared foodstuffs in the kitchen of the maṭha and also I offered pūjā. Only the ground floor had been constructed when I first came there.
On one of my earlier visits, I had a quarter of a Rupee with me which I donated. I commented to Śrīla Guru Mahārāja that I would like to have given more – a full Rupee if only I had one. Śrīla Guru Mahārāja replied that it was not easy to give in full.”
She narrates that at that time, she was requested to perform a most memorable service for her Gurudeva. The temple had been recently established in Navadvīpa-dhāma town itself in an area known as Kolardvīpa where Jagāi and Mādhāi had their famous pastimes with Lord Nityānanda. Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja had made arrangements with a Jaipur mūrtiwālā to prepare Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa Deities for the newly constructed temple. When the Deities of Śrī-Śrī Gāndharvikā-Govindasundara were completed, They were brought from Jaipur by Kṛṣṇamayī Devī and Govinda Mahārāja. When the Deities arrived, Kṛṣṇamayī Devī felt very blessed to have been instrumental in escorting Them to the holy dhāma and her Guru Mahārāja’s temple. But wonder of wonders, just as she thought that the service was done, she witnessed a most inspiring happening as Śrīdhara Mahārāja and his exalted God-brother, Śrīla Bhakti Dayita Mādhava Mahārāja began the installation of the Deities. The two godbrothers performed a roaring kīrtana of immense proportions which culminated in the two dancing wildly and loudly chanting for the pleasure of Their Lordships. Kṛṣṇamayī Devī was astounded and as a witness to this most ecstatic event, her heart became filled with the mercy of Their Lordships and she reports that she actually envisioned at that instance that Śrī-Śrī Gaura-Nitāi were in fact, dancing before Śrī-Śrī Gandharvika-Govindasundara. After witnessing this other-worldly event, she told that her commitment to the service of the Supreme Lord deepened through Śrī Guru and His Grace.
When Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja went on pilgrimage to Badarikāśrama, Kṛṣṇamayī Devī went with him and some of his other followers. She also went to Rāmeśvara with him one year although she was advised not to go because her son-in-law was very ill and it was feared he might leave his body. Still, it was her heartfelt desire to go on pilgrimage with her Guru Mahārāja so she did that. When she returned, amazingly, her son-in-law was still alive.
The Tegharipāḍā area of Navadvīpa used to be famous for its abundant supply of followers of Tantra. They were very entrenched in their tantric way of life but, despite this, Kṛṣṇamayī preached to them and converted them to Vaiṣṇavīsm. Śrīdhara Mahārāja greatly appreciated this. At this time, he proclaimed that she was a āuddha-bhakta, a pure devotee of the Lord. When interviewed, she said, ”I do remember receiving my Guru Mahārāja’s genuine love and blessings. “
Despite her obvious great qualities and intellectual abilities she humbly remained in the service of cooking for the Deities. It was also her practice that she usually would not return daṇḍavat-praṇāmas from a brahmacārī. Some misinterpreted that as some seniority complex but they were sorely misled by their speculation. On the contrary, she herself felt unworthy to receive daṇḍavats from an ascetic because she was a woman. Naturally she was far beyond such bodily distinctions.
The departure of her Guru Mahārāja was very painful for her. She felt great separation for the rest of her life. After his departure She took shelter in another āśrama in the Tegharipāḍā district of Navadvīpa. Later her pain of separation from Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja increased so much that she moved to the Gopīnātha Gauḍīya Maṭha in Māyāpura to have the close association of his stalwart godbrother, Śrīla Bhakti Pramoda Purī Mahārāja. Here she spent much time in her deep bhajana.
In her old age She was lovingly cared for by Jāhnavā Devī Dāsī and a surrendered soul named Gaura Kṛṣṇa Dāsa who served her just like they had served Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja. They took Kṛṣṇamayī Devī to Rādhā-kuṇḍa for a glimpse at that holy place before she left this world. They carried out this service with great until her very last moment in this world.
Actually genuine humility, determination and purity are great qualities rarely found in anyone, what to speak of a lady. Externally women may appear humbler than men, but is that really true humility? Would any of those “humble” ladies be capable of living an entire life of dedication simply cooking for the Deities and serving other Vaiṣṇavas, without any special recognition, or any special titles for their entire lives? Surely not. This type of humility is not so cheap. Such an attitude of profound humility requires the realization that one’s position is simply due to Kṛṣṇa’s mercy at all times.
In the Mahābhārata we find the example of the princess Ambā who was kidnapped by Bhīṣma for his half-brother, Vicitravīrya. When Bhīṣma refused to marry her and she was later rejected by king Śālva, Ambā became extremely bitter. She then performed severe austerities to exact revenge upon Bhīṣma – thus Amba embodies the worldly feminine aspect of mercilessness. She could not forgive those that she considered as offenders. Had Ambā been a Vaiṣṇavī, she would have tolerated her situation, taking it as the mercy of the Lord.
In stark contrast to Ambā’s mundane feminine nature, Śrīmatī Kṛṣṇamayī Devī tolerated so much in her life without protest, always taking the humble position and never putting herself forward. She accepted everything as Kṛṣṇa’s mercy and dedicated her life to Śrī Guru, never thinking of her own comfort or reputation even for a moment. She is an inspiration, not only to all aspiring Vaiṣṇavīs, but to any devotee irrespective of gender, āśrama or position.