Female Priests in India

From time to time when coding, we discover things that make us smile instead of frown. Such was my experience when reading this article about female Hindu priests in Pune, India. Pune is already renowned as a progressive city in India; the article cites the fact that Pune led the way in encouraging and enabling girls to get an education, as well as allowing widow remarriage (which is typically frowned on by traditional Hindu culture). Another article  notes that Pune had also been supportive of family planning as early as the late 1800s. Again, Pune leads the way in this “revolution” of culture. Vishwanath Gurjar, head of the priesthood division of an educational institution in the area, says that “women have an equal right to “moksha,” the Hindu concept of the liberation of the soul from the continual cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. According to him, there is nothing in the scriptures to suggest that women are not equal to men.” Although not expressly forbidden by Hinduism, women have typically not worked as pandits (priests) and the movement has met with some resistance.

The movement towards female pandits began, according to the article, with Shankarrao Thatte (owner of a major marriage hall in the city) starting a training school for women called the Shankar Seva Samiti. Both articles cite the prior “lackadaisical” approach of male priests toward their priestly duties, which included performing several rituals (or puja) in homes. Clients complained that male priests were late, rushed through the ceremonies, and were unwilling to explain the rituals or field questions during or after its performance. Women priests, on the other hand, while still working towards universal acceptance, have been growing in favor by those willing to hire them to perform these rituals. They are reportedly more punctual and willing to explain the meaning of the rituals and as such are often preferred to their male counterparts.

One area, however, where male priests still dominate are with regards to death rituals. This, too has recently become an area of greater debate. In the words of the BusinessLine article:

Gulabbai Tripathi was only 11 when she conducted her first funeral and death rites at the death of her father. She died in 2005, at the ripe old age of 86. For 70-odd years, she was in charge of a crematorium in Allahabad, which she made her home. Marathi writer Mangala Athlekar even penned a book based on her life titled `Gargi’. Says Athlekar, “When I got to know her, I realised that we — women in cities — only talk about women’s liberation in our ivory towers. Gulabbai may not have known the jargon of women’s rights, but she put this `liberation’ into action. “Just as, in Vedic times, Gargi boldly questioned the intellect of Yajnavalkya in a Brahmin gathering, Gulabbai questioned the Brahmin gurus of our era. “Why can a woman not undertake last rites, she asked. She built her own ghat on the banks of the Ganga and served society for 70 years.”

While the issue of women priests is likely still a rather controversial subject in terms of potential conflict if male priests were to feel challenged in their roles, there was one point in particular made by the eNews article that could be universally applicable. Gurjar, quoted earlier about male-female equality in the scriptures, also said that “[i]t is only the mindset of people that stops them from accepting women in certain roles.” This, I believe, is true of many women’s issues domestically and internationally. And so, we at WomanStats endeavor to spread awareness of women’s issues as well as propose new possibilities in order to enable society and the mindset of the populous to change accordingly.

—by CF

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