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Preaching equality

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Over the last four decades, women have been proving that being a priest is not a male preserve, says Tanmaya Vyas

For eons, the image of a priest has been a dhoti-clad man, bald but with trademark choti and bhasma on the forehead, chanting hymns and mantras. Society has blindly accepted everything they chant, including the belief they have inculcated that women can’t be priests. Therefore, for centuries, they have not been seen officiating over religious ceremonies. This, despite, scholars, sociologists and theologians reiterating that Hindu scriptures do not mention anywhere that women cannot be priests.

Taking a cue from this, there has been a significant four-decade long effort to encourage women becoming priests; quietly yet firmly. Shankar Rao Thatte started this movement in 1975 and post his death his wife Mrs Pushpabai Thatte formed an institution under the name Thatte’s Shankar Seva Samiti and has been religiously overcoming the patriarchal convention, in culturally progressive Pune.

Megha Gokhale, who has been a practising priest for the past 22 years, was taught by her teacher Shubhada Jog, who was in one of the first batches of the institution. “I have been practising for over two decades and I have to be honest that I have found no discrimination among men and women priests from the Yajmans (hosts). My guru taught me and she was one of the first students of the institution, which started in 1975. We are invited with immense respect and reverence. I am already advance booked for the upcoming Ganpati festival.”

Kshama Joglekar, a Thane resident, became a priest in 2002 and her mother was one in the 90’s. Sharing her experience, Joglekar says, “The teachers we had were men. Therefore, this prejudice did not exist among the learned. Over the years, we have commanded respect for our skills and knowledge.”

Ambernath-based Kiran Pathak, a practising priest and guide to budding ones, including women like Kshama, points out that women have not become priests in the past simply because “nobody took that step”. She adds: “No one stopped them and no one can, as there is no ban in our religion for women priests. In fact our history has women scholars.”

Students and scholars of the Vedas would know about Rishika Gargi Vachaknavi, a revered mythical figure who was known as an elite scholar and is known for her monumental contribution in the formation of the first and the most important veda, Rigveda. This proves that the presence of women religious scholars is not an alien concept in Hindu religious history.

Over the past decade, institutions like Jnana Prabodhini have strived to bring women priests into the foray in Maharashtra and are training women to conduct rituals for every religious offering.

Women in West Bengal too have taken constructive steps to change this medieval norm. Nandini Bhowmik, a professor of Sanskrit in Jadavpur University, officiated at a marriage earlier this year.  Breaking another misinterpreted custom of Kanyadaan (literally meaning parents donating the daughter to the groom), thinking that the daughter is not a commodity which can be ‘donated’, Bhowmik set an example of a woman priest who is both sensitive yet pragmatic. Here, at no cost did she breach anything written in the vedas. In fact, mention of weddings without Kanyadaans is traced in the Rigveda.

One reason why women have been barred for so long from performing religious rites is the same reason they have been barred from entering temples for a few days—the natural process of menstruation. With greater awareness, this taboo is hopefully fading. However, Kiran Pathak, who trains young girls, has an explanation (which not everyone may agree with). He believes that women should not participate in such activities during this time because they are “mentally and emotionally very vulnerable. And this state is not prescribed to conduct havans or yagnyas, as the reason why we conduct them is to ward off negativity, but women during this period are prone to negative emotions.”

However, as Joglekar points out, “Most women take this up after the age of 50, which is a phase of menopause, so this issue doesn’t arise. It is not recommended for hygiene purposes and nothing else.”

Gokhale declares, “I don’t believe it’s a sin or god will get angry if women go near the deity idol during menstruation. It is just about hygiene and nothing else. But when we started two decades ago and when my teacher started four decades ago, society had staunch beliefs and we would abide by them. Now times have changed and people have limited time to follow such rules.”

As is the case with most religious norms, this too has been misinterpreted and over-rated in our society, making it almost a sin for menstruating women to participate in happy occasions. A forgotten fact is that Sanatan dharma, popularly known as Hindusim, has equal, if not an exceeding number of women deities, therefore this taboo seems questionable.

Women priests are also sought-after when there is a foreign or even non-resident Indian bride/groom involved. As women priests go an extra mile to establish their proficiency and skill-set, foreigners who are interested in Indian culture, often prefer the sincere priests who explain the meaning and reasoning for the rituals.

The pay disparity is found here too but according to Joglekar it is more voluntary than imposed. “Our hosts don’t discriminate. I can speak for myself, I and my team don’t charge much as we have been taught that this what we are giving back to our society. Therefore, if men priests charge around Rs 15,000, we charge around Rs 7,500 for a housewarming puja. Also, this is not our primary source of income; we do it because we are passionate about it.”

With the recent decriminalisation of the same sex relationship by the Supreme Court, there is hope for issues that have been considered unacceptable for no concrete reason—such as the ban on women entering certain temples like Sabarimala. The question that needs to be raised is—why shouldn’t they be allowed? From officiating at weddings to housewarming to naming ceremonies, thread ceremonies and last rites, our society requires validation and blessings from a learned priest. The term ‘learned priest’ is not gender defined and hence women priests must be welcomed this festive season.

Short takes

More than 100 years ago before the movement started in Maharashtra, the Arya Samaj reformist Dayanand Saraswati propagated the training of priestesses in South Africa in 1875.

A reflection of the reformist movement saw the first priestess in Trinidad in the following year.

In Pune, Shankar Rao Thatte started the movement in 1975.

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