When we hear of female ascetics in India, the first name that comes to our mind is surely Mirabai. The exemplary female ascetic of India. She was one of the first women to abandon her husband, her family, her palace and all her possessions and roamed in Dwarika like a recluse. This was courageous beyond imagination in her time, when women were kept in a purdah for their own good.
What sets Mirabai apart from other revered women in Hinduism, was that she abandoned her palace, her husband and everything else and roamed as a recluse in Dwarika, as compared to other revered women in India, who were also great devotees of God, rather stayed at their home, or entered the forest with their husband (vanprastha Ashram) and engaged in spiritual practices, or entered the funeral pyre after their husband. In almost all of the Bhagavatam stories, the wives of great men followed their husband in the forest, and then the husband renounced everything, even her wife and children, and the wife lived with her children observing her spiritual discipline. This is what set Mirabai apart, she had forsaken everything for Krishna and did not care about the world.
Then, during the time of Lord Swaminarayan, there were a lot of female ascetics who had taken the vow of perpetual celibacy. Laduba, Jivuba, Mota Rambai, Minbai, Ladhiba, Jhahmkubai (Mataji) etc are just to name a few. It is there were more Sankhya yogis (female ascetics) in Lord Swaminarayan’s time than the male saints. And all of them were austere and at par with their discipline with Laduba and Jivuba.
Therefore there was a special arrangement for the female ascetics in the time of Lord Swaminarayan. These ladies observed severe vows and discipline and were rock steady in their abnegation. Most of the ladies would stay at Gadhada with Laduba and Jivuba as they were the ideal female ascetics, and they inspire and encouraged others to please God with their penance and devotion. Other ascetics who lived far away and were not able to live in Gadhada due to various reasons, they stayed at their home and their family member made special arrangements for them so that they could live a spiritual life, just as they would have lived in Gadhada. They stayed indoors with not much of exposure to the public and outside world, which helped them to concentrate on their devotion and penance.
This tradition has changed a lot nowadays. Due to the institutionalization of temples and rise of separate female temples, it is often seen that the female ascetics have become more and more popular with their spiritual lectures being recorded and posted online. It is clearly mentioned that men should not attend their lectures, but huge programs are organized with a huge stage where their lectures are attended by men. It seems that they are imitating male saints to get popular, but are forgetting the purpose of their renunciation.
ज्ञानवार्ताश्रुतिर्नार्या मुखात् कार्या न पूरुषैः ।
न विवादः स्त्रिया कार्यो न राज्ञा न च तज्जनैः ॥Shlok 34-Shikshapatri
My male disciples shall never listen to the religious discourses given by females, nor enter into arguments with female rulers and courtiers.
Our Shastras have gone into great depth to segregate the sexes as the association of the two can lead to the mind to wander and thus become weak. Dharma Sangrah goes further to say, ‘Males should not sing with women, sleep with women, walk with women nor ever listen to discourses by women.’
Shrimad Bhagwat provides a reason for this segregation, ‘Man becomes deluded, weak and obsessed at times of association with women. Such behaviour is not evident in other situations.The over powering nature of Maya (illusion) becomes overwhelming and difficult to control and so he is left bewildered unable to subdue his urges for the woman. This results in a man’s foundation of Dharma to become
fragmented and thus destroyed.’
‘How can a man be undisturbed by a woman’s charming face which is like that of the lustrous Sharad Rutu (the season marking the end of monsoon season)? How can he be unaffected by her nectar-like voice so sweet and gay to the ears? How can he be safe when her heart is like that of a sharp razor? Who can fully understand such a woman and her gestures? She is able to entice even the purest and wilful of men and reduce them to foolishness.’ Thus none can escape the hypnotic nature of a woman.
Rasgangadhar explains, ‘Puranas, Shastras and Smrutis have been created through pure thought and therefore it’s teaching of purity of culture and livelihood will stay pure only whilst the mind and thought is pure, which will exist only if the lustful thoughts of women are not able to enter a man’s mind.’
Bhartruhari says, ‘Even those who understand Shastras, their teachings upon and who have knowledge of Atma, find it difficult to reach the heavens. The reason being that one’s eyes may fall upon a woman, which will open the doorway to Narak (hell).’
Prabodh Chandroday Natak teaches, ‘The disciplines in Shastras that exists within the minds of Great men will stay just as long as the sight of that woman with lotus like eyes does not befall upon him.’
Vidurji has explained, ‘Just as a stone sinks when thrown into a river, a man is sure to sink into ruin in the company of women.’ In this way, Shastras have explained the weakness of men in the company of women. Therefore it is forbidden to associate even at times of Dharma Karyas such as Katha Varta, Sabhas etc. and so even sitting together in Sabhas is forbidden as the mind and self are just as vulnerable at these times as they are at others.
Taking this into consideration, the practice of public lectures is strictly prohibited by Lord Swaminarayan, and some males are foolish enough to attend it too! The consequences of it in the long run will be devastating for both men and women.
Their temples have become business houses for designer clothes for thakorjis and murtis of God, pickles, and other food items, rather than keeping it as a devotional service. I am in no way condemning these services, but I think the purpose should be kept unadulterated, it should never become a business.
In spite of all this change and deterioration, there is Ravikantaba, a female ascetic in Loej near Mangrol of Gujarat. She has been exemplary throughout these years with inspiring and guiding thousands of female devotees and yet never crossing the discipline.
We have already witnessed the effect of too much modernization in the male section, if this is plagued in the female asceticism too, then there is no way that we will be able to save this satsang. Female asceticism is as sacred as male asceticism in Swaminarayan sect, and not exaggerating, but there are many places where female ascetics are more active and more in number than male ascetics, if we continue to sustain them, then I am sure that Lord Swaminarayan will be pleased with us. Instead of becoming popular, we should aim to become sincere.
I do not expect every female to renounce the world and become an ascetic, but I wish one gains inspiration from the exemplary lives of such women and live a life of devotion and integrity. We at least live a simpler life which is focused on spirituality and not voluptuary.