In the following letter to Brahmananda dasa, dated 14 March 1967, Srila Prabhupada comments on this question:
"A female is never awarded the order of sannyasa. Because a female is never considered independent and sannyasa was never awarded to any female in the past by great acharyas like Sankara, Ramanuja etc. The female sannyasis are to be immediately understood as pretenders or prostitutes. In India they have organised so many organizations where especially young females are maintained to attract rich women-hunters who pretend to pose as righteous in the society. This is the age of Kali which plunders away spiritual sense of the human beings and it is only the Divine Grace of Lord Chaitanya who can protect us from all these dangerous pitfalls."
When a husband accepts the order of sannyasa, his wife becomes a widow. She may also choose to shave her head, wear white cloth and keep her life very simple. Depending on her spiritual maturity and level of advancement, she may also cultivate the same consciousness of renunciation as her husband – increasing her dependence on the Lord and His devotees, free from the entanglement of family attachments, and fully dedicating all her activities to Krishna. Such consciousness is not the exclusive domain of Vaishnavas in male bodies, it can also be cultivated as a Vaishnavi. According to time, place and circumstance, she can also dedicate herself to preaching the message of Krishna consciousness to whoever she meets.
In this way, we can understand that even though a woman does not formally accept the order of sannyasa, she can develop the same mood and consciousness, thereby achieving the highest level of pure bhakti. On the spiritual platform, there is no difference.
The same principle can be found in the other ashramas: ultimately, renunciation is a question of consciousness and not dependent on an external formality.
Srila Prabhupada expresses this understanding in a letter to Hayagriva dasa, dated 29 August 1967:
"The principle should be that we utilise our talents for the service of the Lord. That is real sannyasa. Formal acceptance of sannyasa, as required for all old men, means that one should retire from materialistic life, and devote his time and energy for the service of the Lord. As you are devoted already to the service of the Lord, without any personal consideration, you are always sannyasis at heart."
In a letter to Jayananda dasa, written on the same date as the letter above, Srila Prabhupada once again beautifully expresses the same point:
"Regarding your dispute in your mind as to remaining a brahmachari, grihastha or sannyasi, there is nothing to be bothered with. Anyone who is in full Krishna consciousness and is dedicating his life for Krishna is already a sannyasi even if he is a married man. If you like you can become a householder and I’ve no objection to that. Our Vaishnava philosophy instructs to become vidvati sannyasis.This means a man who knows things as they are, therefore a devotee who knows that everything belongs to Krishna and that He is the proprietor of all, such a devotee is certainly a vidvati sannyasi. Our philosophy is that we should accept things as prasada of Krishna and nothing for sense enjoyment. Anyone who accepts things for sense enjoyment even if he is externally a saffron dressed man is not a sannyasi."
After all, sannyasa is another upadhi – a material designation which has to be given up at the time of death. In this way, we can regard it as a blessing that we women are protected from accepting yet another designation, which may lead to deep identification and material attachment. The fact that women don’t accept the order of sannyasa is by no means an impediment.
Srila Prabhupada instructed that every one of his disciples should accept the order of sannyasa. After understanding the above quotations, we come to realise his deeper understanding of sannyasa – this instruction may not necessarily mean that literally every man should eventually walk around with a danda in his hand.
As we discussed earlier, only very brahminically inclined men don’t need the feminine energy in their lives to be inspired and motivated. Therefore, only such men are advised to accept the order of sannyasa – an important yet subtle aspect that must be given serious consideration. It has taken us a long time to understand this fact, with the result that many sannyasis have not been able to maintain their position and have fallen down.
Those personalities who are not especially brahminical by nature are advised to remain in the vanaprastha-ashrama which offers the same opportunity to detach oneself from family entanglement and become free from attachment to sense gratification, both gross and subtle. It likewise offers the opportunity to preach Krishna consciousness far and wide, to whoever we meet, and also serve as a diksha-guru. The doors to pure devotional service and the highest level of bhakti are open to one and all, beyond any consideration of body and ashrama. Lord Chaitanya’s sankirtan movement welcomes everyone to help flood the world with the ecstasies of pure
Your servant, Devaki dd