The women priests of Pune, India – they earn and they learn.
It was a hot summer day in August. As a young couple sat quietly chanting mantras (rituals) people listened in hushed silence, as if aware that history was being created. Laxman Bhavan (a wedding hall) in the heart of Pune city was hosting a rare event: a 60-year old woman priest chanting the mantras!
After the marriage was solemnised, the guests were all praise for the precision and clarity with which the priestess, Sushila Andhare, recited the sacred Sanskrit verses – qualities which were becoming rare in men priests.
The saga of women priests began in the nineties in the Udyan Karyalaya, a wedding hall in Sadashiv Peth, Pune. Shankar Thatte, an elderly priest and wonder of the hall noticed a shortage of priests in the city due to the reluctance of young men to join the low-paying profession. The priests who were available were unpunctual, arrogant and demanded high dakshinas (fees). A great believer in women’s rights, Thatte believed that inducting women into the field was the only answer. He founded the Shankarseva Samiti and started teaching the holy texts to a group of women including his wife Pushpa, in 1975. Among those who joined the classes were teenagers and housewives – all with a deep interest in their religion.
Expectedly, there was a great uproar in the city, particularly from male priests who thought the women were out to snatch away their livelihood. ‘I sued to be scared those days,’ admits Andhare, who was in the first batch of students. Some conservative household were reluctant to call women priest to perform the holy rites and fewer still let them conduct marriage rites. Though solemnising weddings by women priests gained acceptance, it is still a taboo for women to conduct death rites. Subhadha Jog (63) recounts the day when she was called in to replace a male priest who had not turned up. ‘He marched in while I was conducting the puja and demanded that I leave as I was a woman and had not right to be there.’ However it was he who was thrown out of the function by those who had invited Jog.
In the early years, the women conducted only smaller pujas like the Vastu Shanti (a puja conducted before moving into a new house). But as time passed they found that they were being called to conduct important rituals. ‘People wanted us,’ says Jog, ‘as we were punctual and knew our verses well. We did not know skip anything and could explain the meaning of the verses. Besides, we accepted whatever dakshina was given to us.
It was the lack of greed as well as the sincerity of the women which won the hearts of the people of Pune.
There was opposition from other quarters. One can recall that some years ago Shankarcharya of Puri (an important priest) denounced the induction of women into priesthood. He felt that the Vedas were a male domain and should remain so.
However, his disapproval has made no dent on the enthusiasm of the women priests. Says Vasanti Khadilkar (52) ‘Nowhere is it written that women cannot recite the Vedas, In fact there were female scholars like Ghosha, Lopamudra, Romasha and Indrani in the Vedic period and women philosophers like Sulabha, Maitreyi and Gargi in the Upanishadic period. There is a verse from Bhihadaranyakopanishad which reads atha ya icched duhita me pandita jayeta and it translates inot “a well-to-do man always thinks that his daughter should be a scholar.” The fact is that women in the sacred books took part in religious rites. And why not? The Vedas are in praise of the Lord so who can dictate to us that only men have a right to do that?’
Sadly, Hinduism which always had a tradition of giving equal rights to woman suffered badly due to the foreign invasions and the contradicting social and religious norms of the invaders. Something which has still not got out of its system.
Pushpa Thatte who has carried on the revolutionary work of her husband by conducting classes to train women priestesses believes that they are more dedicated than their male counterparts. In addition, the lyrical quality of their voices and their diction have made them more popular.
What drives these middle class Maharashtrian women to spend hours learning, reciting, and explaining Sanskrit verses is a deep faith in their religion. ‘We believe that we are doing God’s work and are also proud of our ever-increasing knowledge,’ says Kishori Joshi.
(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta)
Today, several years after the above article was published, there are hundreds of women priests in Pune, a city which has always been known for taking a lead where women’s education, widow re-marriage and family planning was concerned, right from the nineteenth century onwards.
Pune-based Shankar Seva Samiti (SSS) has trained, through its one-year course, over 7,000 women priests from all castes. Another Pune-based organisation, the Jnana Prabodhini (JP), has blended tradition with modernity in its three-month course. Today, there are more women priests in Pune that male ones!
Women priests are widely accepted in Pune now, but ofcourse not everyone has accepted them. The greatest resistance still comes from the older generation.
Also, the death rituals are still taboo for women. Traditionally, Indian women are not supposed to light the funeral pyre and nor are they supposed to be present at the ceremony and this prejudice was bound to affect their conducting the death rituals. However, to see women at such ceremonies is no longer an oddity.
This is what Anna Leutgeb, an Austrian who came to Pune said: ‘Abroad, the impression is that Indian women are a totally suppressed lot, who have to give in to child marriage and sati. The women priests totally contradicted this impression. In fact, they had done something women abroad have not been able to do – become priests in the church. So it was interesting to find Indian women breaking these shackles.’
(Photograph is sourced from indiatogether)
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