Question: In Caitanya Caritāmṛta in the purport, it is mentioned that Mahāprabhu had three and a half confidential associates (CC Adi 10.137: “Caitanya Mahāprabhu had three and a half very confidential devotees. The three were Svarūpa Gosāñi, Śrī Rāmānanda Rāya, and Śikhi Māhiti. Śikhi Māhiti’s younger sister, Mādhavī devī being a women was considered the half”) Could you explain more about them?
Answer: Nothing much is known except that they are associates of Mahāprabhu.
Question: And why is it three, why is the lady considered as a half?
Answer: That is because they counted ladies as half.
Question: Half confidential or because she is a woman?
Answer: Because she is a woman. Now you can make it four, but in those days they counted women as a half person. Now it is not three and a half, so you may change it and make it four. Previously in Christianity they said that women do not have souls, and similarly in Bengal they said that women have half of a soul.
Only Śrī Caitanya gave complete status to women in everything, whether it was worship of śālagrāma, worship of the deity, chanting or initiation. Before Him, no one else allowed women to do those things. In varṇāśrama or even in other Vaiṣṇava sampradāyas, women were always considered as less than men. But Śrī Caitanya gave them equal rights, as far as devotion is concerned.
Question: What was Śrī Caitanya’s attitude towards women, because He allowed them to do many things, from which they were barred previously.
Answer: Mahāprabhu had an equal vision toward women, because every human being has a right to worship Bhagavān, and there is no discrimination in that. Therefore, He gave equal rights to women to worship just like men. He ordained that women should not be discriminated against when it comes to the service of Bhagavān.
Question: But why was He so strict with Choṭa Haridāsa, who begged rice from a woman?
Answer: The punishing of Choṭa Haridāsa was done to warn people that they should not take advantage of these equal rights for women. Because people, in general, have the tendency to get into material relations, which have nothing to do with spiritual life. So this was an example for us. Bhakti means not having any other desire or motive to serve Bhagavān. For that, Mahāprabhu gave equal rights to both, men and women.
But it is not proper to think that because He has given equal rights, therefore men and women can mingle together, and men can exploit women in material dealings for enjoying. Mahāprabhu did not allow that in the name of spirituality one starts to flirt.
Therefore He gave this warning by punishing his associate. Of course, there was no harm done to him, but He punished him to teach others that the tendency of people in the material world is to misuse the principle. Nowadays many sādhus go to houses and beg for food, and this is called mādhukarī. The original idea was that the sadhus should not keep anything for themselves nor make any arrangements for their maintenance. They were completely absorbed in doing service, and to support their bodies, they would beg for food. But in the begging, they [can] establish relationships with women, because it is the women who are in the house and cook the food. Men go out in the fields and do their jobs outside the home. So the sādhus establish a relationship with women and then they deviate from the original principle for which mādhukarī or begging was actually instituted. By the example of Choṭa Haridāsa, Mahāprabhu was giving instructions that sādhus should be very careful. He said, “Now you want to beg rice, but later..” Although Choṭa Haridāsa’s intention was to beg for Śrī Caitanya, it was still not proper that he would go and meet women. The person who was punished was a sannyāsī; they are not supposed to have any dealings with women, therefore Mahāprabhu forbade this kind of activity.
There were so many women associates of Mahāprabhu and He was eating food from their hands. Many of these devotees from Bengal used to carry food in baskets all the way to Jagannātha Purī, which is a few hundred kilometers away. It was stored for snacks. Every day Mahāprabhu would eat something from it. His servant would give it to Mahāprabhu, informing Him, “This food is prepared by such and such devotee,” because he kept the person’s name on the food. So Mahāprabhu would eat the food cooked by women, but in this way, there was no possibility of materialistic attachment.
Question: What is the meaning of Gosvāminī when it comes to the female gurus in our sampradāya?
Answer: Previously there was a tradition that the mantra was to be taken from the mother, and not from the male. The mother is considered to be superior to the father. The mother is considered as the first guru of the child. So in our Vaiṣṇava paramparā, dikṣā was taken from the wife (mother) and not from the husband (father).
So Gosvāminī in this case does not mean the renounced order, but the wife of the guru. This changed at my guru’s (our param-guruji’s) time, because his father gave dikṣā. Before that it was always from the wife (mother).
In the case of my guru, his mother had left her body before he could take dikṣā from her. Then there was a meeting of the scholarly people to decide who would give him (my guru) dikṣā. Then it was decided that his father would give dikṣā.
Question: Is there also something like veṣa [renounced order] for women in uttama bhakti?
Answer: Everybody has the right to take it, but generally it is difficult for women to practice it. But the right is for everybody. However, dikṣā in uttama-bhakti is complete surrender anyway, so it does not matter. It was only for niṣṭhā that a certain class of people would give up everything, so that they could fully take to the path and give guidance to others.