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Most of the early generations of Gaudiya Vaishnava women leaders were related to earlier charismatic male leaders of the movement. Of all these women, who are yet few in number, Jahnava, the wife of Nityananda Prabhu, stands out.

She was widowed, it would seem, when still fairly young. She had no children herself, but her nephew and stepson, Nityananda's son Virabhadra (born of Jahnava's younger sister and co-wife Vasudha), was not yet of an age where he could exercise leadership in the dynastic system that had apparently been envisioned as appropriate for the continuation of the movement In the absence of another appropriate leader; Jahnava stepped into fill the leadership void.

Narayani and Sukhi

Another woman worthy of mention is Narayani, the mother of Vrindavan Das (author of Chaitanya Bhagavata). She was Srivas Thakur's niece, only a little girl at the time of Chaitanya's maha-prakash leela, at which she was present and given special attention by Him.

One of Srivas' servants, Duhkhi ("sad"), was privileged to observe Chaitanya's nightly kirtan; she would bring Ganges water for the Vaishnavas to drink. She thus earned blessings from Mahaprabhu and was given the name Sukhi ("happy") in place of her original name

Ganga Devi

Sri Nityananda's daughter. It is said that when she was born, Abhiram Thaku, a great devotee of Nityananda, and one of the chief sakhas known as Sridama in Sri Krishna's Braja leela, came to prostrate himself before her. This, rather than being a sign of respect, was a test. Abhiram's prostrations were dangerous, and had nefarious results. Indeed, several of Vasudha's other babies had died after Abhiram had made such shows of devotion.

Ganga, however, survived the test and Abhiram predicted that she would be a very powerful woman and even pronounced her to be the incarnation of the holy Ganga, writing a twenty-verse hymn in her honor.

According to Gaura-ganoddesha-dipika, her husband Madhava Chattopadhyaya was Santanu (who married the goddess Ganga) in his previous incarnation. Their family took up residence in the village of Jirat on the western bank of the Bhagirathi and their descendents continue to function as initiating gurus of Vaishnavism.


Krishnapriya and Vishnupriya

These two sisters represent a new type of woman in Gaudiya Vaishnava history: they were renunciates who practiced a life of intense asceticism and devotion comparable to those of the male monks in whose contact they themselves lived.

Daughters of Narottama Das's chief disciple Ganganarayan Chakravarti, they were told by Narottam himself to take initiation from their father. They lived for some time at Radha Kund in Braj.

Their reputation was such that Raghunath Das's Govardhan shila, which had been given to him personally by Sri Chaitanya, was entrusted to their care by Mukunda, the disciple of Krishnadas Kaviraj (who had received it from Raghunath). This in itself was a highly unorthodox act that resulted in a certain amount of dissent in the conservative community.

According to the Narottama-vilasa of Narahari Sarkar, Krishnapriya took a number of disciples, but ultimately had to disown one of them, Rupa Kaviraj, who, for whatever motive, took the side of those who felt that her gender restricted her role in certain public religious acts.

In particular, he objected to her presence in the assembly of men at the reading of the Bhagavatam. The Vaishnavas present all offered obeisance to her in the assembly with the exception of Rupa Kaviraj who asked her how she, being a woman, could listen to the Bhagavata reading, to which she answered, "It is the wagging of tongues that makes listening to the reading difficult, not my presence."

This made Rupa Kaviraj furious, but the result of his offensive behavior was that he was forced to leave Vrindavan and return to Orissa, where legend has it he ultimately died a leper.

Hemlata Thakurani and Gangamata Goswami

Not much is known about Hemlata Thakurani. She was the eldest daughter of Srinivasa Acharya and had many disciples, both men and women. She was a mystic of the highest order and developed a profound sense of love for God.

Hemalata initiated many disciples, most important of whom is Yadunandan, a prolific poet and author.

Gangamata Goswami, on the other hand, is written about quite often in the pages of Gaudiya Vaishnava history, especially in the historical records of the Nityananda-vamsha (from which she descends).

Her guru was Haridasa Pandita, a disciple of Anantacarya, who was a follower of Jahnavadevi. In this way, her disciplic descent is traced to Nityananda Prabhu.

Her original name was Sachi. She was the daughter of a rich zamindar (landowner) in Puntia in Orissa, who left her home to go to Vrindavan where she took initiation from Haridas Goswami of Vrindavan.  On the orders of her spiritual master she went to Radha Kund, where she lived for many years with her godsister Lakshmipriya.

Afterwards, she was again instructed by her spiritual master to establish herself in Jagannath Puri, taking the so-called kshetra sanyas. She took up residence at the home of Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, an important disciple of Sri Chaitanya during his years in Puri. When she came there, only a shaligram shila named Radha Damodar was being served at this house. She gradually expanded the service by installing other deities.

Sachi gave discourses on the Bhagavata Purana that attracted large audiences. The king of Orissa, Mukundadeva, had a dream that Lord Jagannath told him to make a donation of land for the service of the deity.

Prior to this, Sachi had begged in order to maintain this service. Near the home of Sarvabhauma is a tank that is known as Svetaganga (the white Ganges) into which the water from the Jagannath temple, including the water which is used for bathing Jagannath, is drained.

Once, on the auspicious occasion for bathing of Mahavaruni which takes place in the middle of the night, she was washed by the currents of the Ganges and taken inside the gates of the Jagannath temple by the flowing waters. The temple guards thought that she was a thief and had her arrested, but King Mukundadeva once again had a dream of Jagannath who told him that he should set her free.

He and many of the other sevayats of Lord Jagannath eventually took initiation from her. Because she had been washed by the Ganges water which springs from the feet of Lord Jagannath, Sachi became known by the name of Ganga Mata Goswamini.

The house of Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya is now more commonly known as Ganga Mata's Math and is one of the major houses of Vaishnavism in Puri. Several siddha-babajis were initiated in her line, which is traced back to Gadadhar Pandit and wears the distinctive nupur-style tilak. The Deity of her heart was Madana Gopala, and she worshiped this form of Krishna with great devotion.

 

To be continued..

 

Jai Jai Sri Radhey !

Jai Sri Guru !