Teachings of Sri Swamiji

Women and Sannyasa

In the history of yoga, women have always been in the majority. Count the number here in the assembly, go to any yoga class, satsang or ashram and you will find more females than males. The fact that you will always find more females involved in spiritual movements is not due to a recent development, it is because there has been a recent revival.

Throughout the last few centuries, women have been kept suppressed and denied the fundamental rights of equality. They were also barred from spiritual life. Perhaps the reason for this was that men wanted to exploit them for their carnal objectives. I am sure my suspicion is correct. If women were allowed to practise spiritual life and encouraged to raise their awareness, then how could they be used as victims of men’s carnality?

Look at the status of women in the West. Until recently they were only encouraged to be wives and mothers, nothing more. They were conditioned in such a way that they did not know how to deny, refuse or resist. It is only now that women are beginning to break free from the old tradition. In the West they have always been completely excommunicated from the spiritual cloister. When I visited monasteries in the West, the female sannyasins accompanying me were not allowed beyond the cloisters. It is completely different in the tradition of yoga; men and women can live, move, talk and interact with each other.

Since the beginning of yogic history, women have played a major role as many of them have even been gurus and saints. Shiva is believed to be the first guru and the founder of tantra and yoga. Do you know who the first disciple was? Parvati, his counterpart, wife or shakti. If you read the tantric texts you will find they commence with “Parvati asked.” So, the knowledge of tantra and yoga was first imparted to a woman.

In the yogic culture, when reference is made to a relationship, the woman is always mentioned first. We say “Sita Ram” not “Ram Sita”, “Radha Krishna” not “Krishna Radha” and “Gauri Shankara” not “Shankara Gauri”. This is because in the scheme of evolution, Shakti comes first and Shiva comes next.

In the Tibetan and Hindu traditions of tantra there are 84 yogis and out of these, 64 were yoginis (females). And in Kashmir there was a great lady saint named Lalla. She was always completely naked. Often her devotees would ask, “Lalla, why don’t you put on clothes?” And she used to taunt them, “Do you see my body or do you see my soul?”

In the Upanishads you will find many references to great women saints and philosophical debates going on between the male and female yogis. One fantastic reference is to a very clever lady called Garghi who was a renowned scholar and great sannyasini.

When we study the books on tantra, we come across one central theme: Shakti is the creator, and Shiva is instrumental. Adi Shankaracharya wrote in the first line of his most famous tantric work, “Without Shakti, how can Shiva create?” Shiva is only the silent witness, Shakti is the creator. That is why, in the tantric tradition, the woman is the initiator.

There are two traditions existing in the world. One is matriarchal and the other is patriarchal. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are patriarchal. Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Shintoism, Taoism and Confucianism are all matriarchal. The matriarchal religions are very accommodating religions. They have a lot of understanding and compassion for others which reflects the basic feminine nature.

Matriarchal religions have been responsible for the beautiful things in life, such as the fine arts, yoga, tantra, dance, music, painting and so on. Patriarchal religions are non-compromising and have produced powerful warriors and developed strong administrations. They have also prevented women from coming forward.

However, in the last one and a half centuries, women in the West have been becoming more open, and slowly changes are taking place in the East too. As I told you in the beginning, there has also been a recent revival in the tradition of female sannyasins, and for this I am responsible. In the early 1960s and 70s, when I began to initiate women into sannyasa, there was a great commotion amongst orthodox people, but as the years rolled by they had no other option than to follow my trail. Now they have more female disciples than I have.

Woman is one of the finest creations of the creator and there is no reason why she should be barred from spiritual life.Women are very psychic by nature and should be encouraged to raise their consciousness and develop this part of their personality. Why should they not become clairvoyants, telepaths, prophets, scholars and sannyasins?

One of the most important reasons for the success of my work is the induction of females into the movement. I do not mean that men are useless, they have their own place, but in the scheme of creation, I believe women are superior.

Chamarande, France, 1981, first published in YOGA Vol. 20, No. 10 (October 1982)