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INDIA: Women As Hindu Priests Have An Edge

PUNE, India, Nov 24 2009 (IPS) - Defying Hindu orthodoxy and intolerant male priests, women in Maharashtra state, western India, have revived a Vedic tradition and become priests.

The priest, Manisha Shete (in blue saree) explains the puja to the yajman (host), Vidyadhar Kulkarni. Credit: Daksha Warty/IPS

The priest, Manisha Shete (in blue saree) explains the puja to the yajman (host), Vidyadhar Kulkarni. Credit: Daksha Warty/IPS

Approximately 700 women, most of them from Pune, a busy metropolis, 164-km south of Mumbai (previously Bombay), have undergone the necessary training since the seventies, and many of them are practicing.

“Women priests perform all kinds of rites – upanayana (thread ceremony), adoption, engagement, marriage, remarriage, conversion, reconversion, house warming, ancestor worship and last rites,” says Arya Joshi, 29, a researcher and instructor at the Pune-based Gyan Prabhodini.

Arya told IPS that researchers at the institute are working on simplifying the rites and rituals of the Hindu dharmashastra (code of conduct including moral and social obligations).

“The institution is addressing the spiritual needs of the progressive Hindu who wants to break away from difficult ritualistic offerings,” she says.

Discipline and Sincerity

A philanthropist, Shankar Hari Thatte, a Brahmin, first trained women priests in the orthodox school in the mid-seventies. He wanted to impart knowledge of the Vedic texts and learning, and chose children to begin with. But seeing their indiscipline and disinterest, he decided to teach their mothers instead!

Mama, as he was called, started by learning all the rites and rituals that are needed to be a priest. Thereafter he set up the Udyan Prasad Karyalaya in Pune, to train the first batch of women priests. The classes were free, and began during 'chaturmas', the monsoon season stretching over four months in the Hindu calendar.

The women were in their forties, and some among them were non-Brahmins (the Brahmins claim they are the only priestly caste), much to the dismay of the community.

Mama made his students work hard and learn by heart all the 'stotras' and mantra (chants). He provided the samagri (material required to perform the 'yagnas') and copies of the scriptures. A stickler for time, he instructed the women priests to leave if the yajman (host) keeps them waiting.

Mangala Marathe is in her sixties and one of the women priests who had trained under Mama. She recalls that he was a great support to students who were undergoing the training against the wishes of their families. "Throughout my career I've never had a bad experience," she says. "People look up to us and feel good after we conduct the puja for them."

Mugdha Paranjape, 38, endorses the sentiment. For the past five years, her family has been inviting a group of stree purohitas (women priests) to perform special pujas.

"We have been inviting the same group," she says. "They are disciplined, proper and systematic. There is a rhythmic sincerity about them. They come regularly and complete the puja in three hours. They usually are dressed in sarees and have opted for one type making it look like a uniform. Initially, I was apprehensive but now everything is settling down and we look forward to having them perform all the rituals for our family."

As priests, the women challenge many stereotypes including caste. Training is open to women from all castes (Brahmins claim they are the only priestly caste), and whether they are single, married, widowed or divorced.

“Our society never asks a male priest whether he is a widower or a divorcee, or single. He conducts the prayers and rituals. So why should women be treated differently,” says Arya, who is married and was introduced to Hindu theology by her father, a preacher.

Sunanda Joshi, 64, is a multi-lingual priest. She conducts pujas (prayers) in Marathi, Gujarati and Hindi. She says that her early years were hard, as she had to constantly prove herself. Now, although a widow, she is one of the most sought after women priests in Pune.

She observes a change, over the years, in people’s expectations and wants. Many Hindus now prefer to keep the religious rites and rituals short, she says. Also, there’s a new concern for the environment – people do not want ‘havans’ or ‘yagnas’ where firewood has to be burnt. “They don’t want to waste wood nor do they want to create smoke,” she says.

In addition, at some of the marriages she has conducted, brides have refused to wear the mangalsutra (a pendant worn on a gold chain or thread to symbolise marriage), she says, because there are no such equivalent ritualistic demands on men. “The girls feel that husbands too must have such customs,” she says.

Historically the earliest mention of women participating in ritualistic offerings or Brahmavadinis (those who interpret the scriptures) is in the Rig Veda (between 3300 and 1300 BC, in chapters 5.28 and 10.125). There were 27 Brahmavadinis, who performed rituals and were also acharyas (teachers).

“At the Prabhodini we encourage everyone to participate and read from the text. A copy of the chants is given to everyone,” says Arya who is working towards a doctorate on the concept of shraddha (charity) in last rite rituals.

So, does the Hindu laity think a woman priest is different to the traditional male priest? “Women priests are very committed,” writes Mahesh Madhukar Prabhudesai who hosted a prayer recently, in a letter of appreciation to the Prabhodini. “They explain all the (steps) offerings during the pujas.”

Girish Manohar Mokashi who had a woman priest conduct his mother’s last rites says, “The eleventh day rituals were performed. It was a very satisfying and a noble experience. The rituals were explained to us. All (the) family members were made a part of the rituals. We thank the priest for making us feel very close and one with our mother.”

A priest has to be fluent in Sanskrit to be able to interpret the rituals to worshippers.

Madhuri Karvade recalls the most difficult part of her training was mastering Sanskrit. She told IPS: “It took me nine years to learn and pronounce the words in Sanskrit. I tried hard specially for the last rites. An old lady was so impressed that she has fixed my services for her last rites!”

What is the reaction of male priests to the invasion of their territory by women?

“It appears we (male priests) are not doing our job properly,” says a defensive Rajesh Khodke, 32, a journalist-turned-priest who is the rector of the boys hostel at Gyan Prabhodini, which is located off Tilak Road in the city. “Only women priests are grabbing attention. We too want to be noticed,” he complains.

Pradeep Deo, 55, who previously worked in a pharmacy, feels that too much is being made of the women priests. “Whether male or female, we just have to do our job,” he says.

Male priests still dominate the profession. “Societal attitudes are changing towards us, but the process is slow,” observes Arya.

According to Sunanda, whose 42-year-old divorced daughter is training to be a priest, the few times there has been scepticism about her capabilities, it has been from women. “When we are approached by families, everything goes well till the lady of the house sees us and says a polite no!”

“Women priests are committed and their expertise in conducting the pujas is widely acknowledged,” says Arya. “Yet they remain the second choice (after male priests), something that is going to take a long while to change.”

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