Women Augment the Priestly Ranks

July 6, 2007

Author: Lavina Melwani

Source: Hinduism Today


The bride was present, as was the groom, but where was the officiating priest? All the guests gathered in a Milwaukee home for the wedding ceremony were wondering aloud why he was so late. Little did they realize that the priest was already there, sitting amongst them. She is Shashi Tandon, an exuberant grandmother from New Delhi, clad in an orange silk sari and armed with Vedic knowledge. The guests expected a male pujari, as is traditional in Hindu ceremonies. But it was Shashi who calmly led them through the intricate rituals, creating a wonderful aura of spirituality. She has presided over not only weddings, but all the samskaras--Hindu rites of passage from births and first feedings to funerals. Shashi is one of a small but growing number of women pujaris, or purohits, who are changing the long-standing tradition in which rituals are performed only by male priests of the brahmin caste.

Women Hindu priests in America are still so unusual that when Neelima Shukla-Bhatt performed the upanayana samskara sacred thread ceremony in New Jersey for the son of her cousin, Himanshu Shukla, the guests actually broke into appreciative applause. That's something which never happens at a religious gathering! Himanshu requested that Neelima perform the ceremony because she knew the traditions better than anyone else in the family. She also has a PhD in comparative religion from Harvard University and is fluent in Sanskrit, and the rituals are both meaningful and joyous to her.

Neelima says, "Hindus in India have quietly but steadily reintroduced women priests without any great fanfare, controversy or rioting. There are many women priests around the country, particularly in the western state of Maharastra, who officiate at various samskaras and yagnas."

Bhatt, a professor of South Asian Studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, points out that the Rig Veda refers to women priests making sacrifices and composing hymns. By the first millennium, however, it appears the priestly role was no longer open to women; and by Manu's time a patriachal system had arisen in which women were forbidden even to study the Vedas.

The Upanishads contain references to strong women such as Gargi who engaged in philosophical debate with male counterparts such as Yagnavalkya. At least eight women religious luminaries are still known from ancient times, including Sati Ansuya, Shashi, Apala, Kaushalya and Arundhati. From the first millennium ce to the medieval period lived many poet-saints such as Andal in Tamil Nadu, Lalleshwari from Kashmir, Mahadevi Akka in Karnataka and Mirabai in Rajasthan. Although these women were not priests, they were revered in a religious context.

Bhatt says that in the latter half of the 20th century a small, quiet revolution has taken place in Pune, where women have been trained as priests and are becoming surprisingly popular. She observes, "People are preferring to have women priests, which is a phenomenon that is striking. It's happening here in the US, too, where women are seeing their work in the context of community need; and people seem to be accepting of it."