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The women priests of Pune, India – they earn and they learn.

October 18, 2006

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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)

NOTE:
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)

Related Reading: A book to counter the Hinduphobia of the mainstream West
Emphasis on Rituals in Hinduism…at the cost of Spirituality
The future of religion looks good
Are converts accepted in Hinduism?
Gurus and Godmen – good or bad?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Shrirang Talwalkar permalink
    October 21, 2006 4:33 am

    I am not sure I like the word priest!!! I always thought that it was a Catholic priest. Even a Protestant “priest” is called a minister. A muslim “priest” is called an Imam and a jewish “priest” is called a Rabi. A Budhist “priest” is called a Monk. Why a Hindu Priest? How about “Guruji” or its female form for a woman?

    Also, a better subject might be the role of the Guruji in the religion. In all others the “priest” has a far more important role to play in the society than a Guruji does in Hinduism. Other than following rituals — generally blindly– what does a Guruji do? In that case why is it even important for women to get involved in this fairly useless occupation?

  2. October 21, 2006 7:12 am

    I guess you are right, we do not have strong strictures that need to be followed and therefore the Guruji’s are considered less important than in other religions.
    A lot of women who enter this profession are doing it because they are not trained to do anything else. Quite a few are in their 40’s and 50’s and have missed the bus where a career is concerned. And Shrirang – thats a very good idea for an article. The role of a Guruji in Hindusim. I will have to convince my editor to let me do it.

  3. November 1, 2006 3:54 am

    I really enjoyed this artical, thank you.

    Considering one to the more basic teachings is Satyam eva jayate nanrtam- Truth alone triumphs, not falsehood.

    I find this article very timely.

    I’ve recently been given a copy of Sri Chinmoy’s The Three Branches of India’s Life Tree with commentaries on the Vedas the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Its been an enormous help to me in my (so far limited) studies of sacred poetry. I was just reading last night from the book:

    Pg 5. The Vedic teachings are universal. In the Yajur Veda we clearly observe that the teachings of the Vedas are for all – The Brahmins, The Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas, the Shudras even the Chandalas, who are the degraded and the abandoned *

    *In later times Shudras, non-caste people and women were denied the study of the Vedas.

    I like to think Shankar Thatte and his wife Pushpa Thatte are continuing in the footsteps of the First Indian seers to reveal spiritual truths for all people.

    As a woman, and a non caste foreigner, I am pleased to have the opportunity to study these verses and to all the people who have dedicated themselves to ensuring such national treasure survive to become universal treasure, I am thankful.

    Sincerely,
    Hazel 8500

  4. Satish D. Joshi permalink
    October 25, 2008 11:23 am

    I don’t want to comment on the new way started by Mrs. & Mr. Thatte Guruji, however the reason mentioned over that” The Priests avaialabe were unpunctual, arogant and asking more Dakshina(Fees)” is not right. Mr. Thatte must have came accross with such types of Priests. But this can’t be applicable to all. With this opinion this Mr. Thatte is spoiling the image of other good priests.

  5. Vinod permalink
    June 15, 2009 7:37 pm

    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

    Nita, can I see some evidence to this claim?

    Vinod, this is just my opinion and I think I am not sure I believe it now. After I wrote this I have improved my understanding of the issue. This subject is far too complex for me to have made a claim like that. – Nita.

  6. Alia permalink
    December 21, 2009 3:09 pm

    Hi. My sister is getting married early in 2010 and she is really interested in getting a woman to conduct the wedding rituals. Any idea where one can contact one of them? I have tried asking around in Mumbai but no one seems to be sure, and I dont know anyone in Pune….

    Alia, It was the owner of a marraige hall called Udyan Karyalaya who started this movement. If you live in Pune there should be no trouble getting there. Or if not, try and get a phone number from justdial.com I personally do not know any women priests. – Nita

  7. Cheryl permalink
    January 30, 2010 2:44 am

    Hi
    Do you know if these schools still have training for women who would like to take the training. Is this training only for Indian Nationals or is it possible to take the training if you are from out of India but come to India and stay. I have searched but dont find any contact information for either of these schools. This is a training that I have looking for for years.

    Cheryl, as far as I know this training still exists. The place to contact is Udyan Karyalay
    1712/1B Sadashiv Peth, Opposite site Scount Ground, Tilak Road, Pune, 411030, Maharashtra, India. I am not sure of the phone but this is what I found on the net: Phone: 020-24472441 and this if you ring up from India. I guess if you are abroad you need to add 91. It is at this place that the training originated. It has most probably moved to another place but they might know where. – Nita

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