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Tuesday, April 7, 2020
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.
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.
“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.
“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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