As the exemplar sannyasi and ācārya, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī was particularly strict in dealings with women. He would meet females only if they were accompanied by their husband or a son. He tended to deal with women formally rather than affectionately, even they be his śiṣyās or relatives. Nonetheless, he sometimes gave extensive personal instructions to female devotees by letter.
Once while Śrīla Sarasvatī Ṭhākura was sitting with a few disciples in his room at Ultadingi Road, one of his sisters entered. After a short exchange she left, whereupon he asked those disciples why they had not restrained her from coming. And when Śrīla Sarasvatī Ṭhākura was once visited by his aged mother and a sister in her fifties, and the only other male disciple present got up to leave the room, Śrīla Sarasvatī restrained him, saying, “Do you want me to fall down?”
Many years later Śrī O.B.L. Kapoor’s wife, a harināma śiṣyā of Śrīla Sarasvatī Ṭhākura, requested to speak alone with him. Although old enough to be her grandfather, he refused: “Whatever you have to say, you may say in the company of others.” And when Śrī Nafarcandra Pal Chaudhuri once brought his sexagenarian mother to meet Śrīla Sarasvatī Ṭhākura, she was turned back: “Mother, stay downstairs. Send your son to meet me.”
As His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda commented, “Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Gosvāmī Mahārāja did not very much like preaching amongst women.”
Typical of a renunciant within the Vedic tradition, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī often quoted verses from śāstra specifying the dangers of strī-saṅga, association with women—for instance,
mātrā svasrā duhitrā vā nāviviktāsano bhavet
balavān indriya-grāmo vidvāṁsam api karṣati
One should not sit close to his mother, daughter, or sister, because the senses are so strong that they can agitate the mind of even a learned person.
In his commentary on Śrī Caitanya-bhāgavata 1.1.29, he wrote extensively about the perils of associating both with women and those attached to women. Profusely citing śāstra, he warned that such mixing is the cause of downfall and the gateway to hell for aspiring transcendentalists.
Privately, among male disciples, Śrīla Sarasvatī Ṭhākura sometimes referred to the deviousness characteristic of muliebral nature as described in śāstra. It was not that he was against womankind, for he expounded on the spiritual equality of all living beings, whatever their outward covering, admonishing that to overly harp on the dangers of strī-saṅga might increase rather than decrease the fascination for womanly charms, the binding force in material existence. Furthermore, he clarified that scriptural norms prescribing gender segregation did not constitute a blanket indictment of females, but rather of the perverted mentality prevalent in the world:
Sannyasis and brahmacārīs are forbidden to see women. Yet it is not intelligent to on that basis think badly of all femininity. What is meant by “seeing women” is judging them as objects of sense enjoyment; that kind of seeing is reprehensible. There is no fault in the phenomenon, but in the attitude or behavior toward it. There is nothing bad in all the diversity of the world, yet misuse of its objects is blameworthy. If the varieties of the world are engaged in serving Bhagavān, that is quite acceptable
“Sex,” a forthrightly titled Harmonist article of January 1936 that examined trends toward the social emancipation of women, opened:
The relationship between the sexes cannot be placed on a satisfactory basis without reference to the Absolute. The modern woman in Europe and America is anxious to have full liberty of action limited only by the conditions of mundane existence. This necessity for adaptation to the mundane environment is a very large reservation on individual liberty and perhaps exercises the decisive influence on the aspirations and modes of activity of every mortal, including women.
The modern woman is seeking, above all things, economic equality with man by enlarging the scope of her occupations. There is no field of human labor into which she is not entering on a footing of equal partnership with men. There may even come a day, perhaps very much sooner than many people imagine, when woman workers will be preferred to men in most branches of human industry, thus reversing the past arrangement.
Under the circumstances will it not be regarded as an extinguisher of the cherished hopes of the fair sex to advance the view that the sexes should be segregated from each other, which clearly requires also demarcation of the respective spheres of activity of the sexes? Śrī Kṛṣṇa Caitanya condemns all association between the sexes for carnality in the most unsparing terms. Is this teaching of the śāstras to be regarded as obsolete and oriental in view of the immemorial practice of Western countries as well as the most modern tendencies all over the world that are rapidly sweeping away all barriers to unreserved association of the sexes? If women take over the work that is being performed by men all over the world, will not such change obliterate the last obstacles in the way of the fellowship of the sexes on a footing of perfect equality? Will it also lead to sexual intemperance and moral and eugenic disasters?
This is not regarded as likely by those who believe in the natural goodness of the white races, who are the pattern of modern humanity, and the proved sobering effects of individual liberty in the case of white men. It is the basic maxim of modern radicalism that the more complete the responsibility that is thrown upon the shoulders of a human being, the lesser be chance of his or her physical or mental degradation.
Liberty is supposed by the moderns to be the panacea for all the ills that the flesh is heir to. The tendency towards full liberty is very clearly illustrated by the modern attitude towards the institution of marriage. Modern women and men are developing an increasing repugnance for the obligations of the married state. Free sexual intercourse at the option of the parties is on the point of scoring an unqualified victory over the old superstition of the inviolability of the marriage vow.
Both man and woman are nowadays claiming perfect freedom of sexual relationship. This is necessary if both sexes are to have equal liberty of action. It does not follow that such liberty will be necessarily abused. The modern expectation is that it will make the conditions of sexual relationship better and more reasonable. Such being the modern ideal, is not the teaching of the Supreme Lord contrary to the best hopes of the race?
The question from the worldly point of view hinges on the actual mundane result of sex liberty. Śrī Kṛṣṇa Caitanya is against sexual intercourse between man and woman who are not husband and wife. He is against man and woman who are not husband and wife meeting by themselves in privacy. He cites with approval the text of the śāstras that it is not possible even for the wise to stand against the seductions of the flesh. There is a radical school of thought in favor of admitting the practice of carnality as a matter of right and source of wellbeing. They hope that licensed carnality can alone effectively curb sexual excess. This view is not endorsed by Śrī Kṛṣṇa Caitanya, who declares that the carnal propensity increases by sexual freedom.
Although women were welcome to visit for darśana and other functions, the standard decorum of restricting association between females and sadhus was rigidly observed. During lectures and similar proceedings, men and women sat well apart on separate large rugs, often hidden from each other by a bamboo screen, by which also the speaker (inevitably male) could neither see nor be seen by the opposite gender. Śrī O.B.L. Kapoor recalled that his wife received harināma from behind such a screen, and it may be inferred that this was Śrīla Sarasvatī Ṭhākura’s standard practice for initiating females. Women were not allowed in the deity kitchen, it being considered an extension of the altar, although some older women were permitted to assist in cooking for devotees. During festivals, when much assistance was required, women could render miscellaneous services, yet safeguards were enforced to uphold the policy of segregating the sexes as far as possible.
Reproduced with permission from the book Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Vaibhava by Bhakti Vikasa Swami.