Women Pujaris: Between Man and GodBy Lavina Melwani • Jan 3rd, 2009 • Category: Faith
And Now – Hindu Women Priests
The bride was there, the groom was there but where was the officiating priest?
All the guests who had gathered in a Milwaukee home for the wedding ceremony were wondering aloud as to why the priest was so late. Little did they realize the priest was already there sitting amongst them – a feisty grandma from New Delhi, clad in an orange silk sari and armed with Vedic knowledge. She would calmly lead them through intricate rituals, creating a wonderful aura of spirituality.
The guests, of course, had been expecting to see a male purohit or priest as is the tradition in Hindu ceremonies. Yes, Shashi Tandon is a female priest, and has led diasporic communities through birth ceremonies, weddings, death rituals and all the sanskaras of Hinduism.
She is one of a small but growing number of women pujaris who are out to break the long standing tradition of rituals being performed only by male priests of the Brahmin caste. Earlier, to have a woman perform the rituals was almost sacrilege and for hundreds of years women took a backseat in spiritual matters.
“Man can be a priest and a woman cannot be a priest?” questions Tandon. “These are all manmade things. They wanted to dominate women and that’s why they said women couldn’t be priests. Who gave birth to these men, you tell me?”
In fact the phenomenon of women Hindu priests in America is still so unusual that when Neelima Shukla-Bhatt, who has a PhD in comparative religion from Harvard University, performed the Upanayan Samskara or sacred thread ceremony in New Jersey for the son of her cousin, Himanshu Shukla, the guests actually broke into applause – something which never happens at a religious gathering!
Shukla requested her to do the ceremony because she knew the traditions better than anyone else in the family, is fluent in Sanskrit and the traditional rituals are both meaningful and joyous to her. Indeed, in Vedic times, women priests were a reality and are not a new invention.
Shukla says, “Hindus in India have quietly but steadily reintroduced women priests without any great fanfare or 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, who is currently a professor at Wellesley College in South Asian Studies, points out that the Rig Veda refers to women priests making sacrifices and also composing hymns. By the 1st millennium, however, it appears the priestly role of women disappeared and by Manu’s time women were under the control of the patriarchal system.
In the Upanishads there were references to strong women such as Gargi who were engaged in philosophical debate and often were victorious over their male counterparts. There are at least eight women rishikas like Sati Ansuya, Shashi, Apala, Kaushalya and Arundhati who were highly respected.. In 13th to the 16th centuries we have many saint poets like Mirabai. Although these women were not priests they were looked up to in a religious context. Throughout the Islamic and British period, however, the role of women in Hinduism was relegated to the home.
Bhatt says that in the later half of the 20th century a small quiet revolution has taken place in Pune where women have been trained as priests and are becoming very popular.
She observes, “People are preferring to have women priests which is a phenomenon that is striking – it’s happening here too where women are seeing their work in the context of community need and people seem to be accepting of it.”
Indeed, the catalyst for this change seems to be the Dyanaprabhodhini Centre in Pune where women are being trained since over 15 years to conduct religious ceremonies. Jayavantrao Lele, who heads the center, told BBC News that he has been approached by both individuals and temples for women priests. On one occasion about 21 women priests went to a Pune temple to perform the rites and the temple officials were so impressed that they wanted to use women priests every year.
Women priests may also be playing a larger role because many males are leaving the priestly business for more lucrative money making jobs. Once upon a time the priestly class had a lot of cache but this is no longer the case, and the sons of priests are often leaving the family profession for white collar jobs.
Bhatt’s family is a case in point. Three generations ago her forbears belonged to the priestly class in Surat in Southern Gujarat. “Although my grandfather was a priest as were my cousins, my father became a professor,” she recalls. “Education was redefined as secular education and everyone was getting degrees in engineering and medicine. Nobody in my family is now a priest so my cousin who grew up in America thought he would like me to do his son’s sacred ceremony as it’s always been done by a priest from our own family.”
While Bhatt performed the ceremonies just for her own family, Shashi Tandon, who came to America 24 years ago, has been regularly presiding at religious ceremonies in the Hindu communities in Chicago and Michigan. A high school teacher, she often performed havans in her free time in India. When her children got married and immigrated to the US, she was requested to come and look after the grandchildren and give them the right sanskaras.
For the past two decades she has done just that, teaching them the rituals on her lap and they have gone on to successful careers. She says, “They know the reality that if you are spiritually developed and know your culture, you can be successful anywhere.”
Indeed, women are the keepers of culture and in that capacity are taking on the challenge of passing on the traditions to the next generation. Anju Bhargava, a banker and management consultant in New Jersey, also takes very seriously her role of mother and community builder. She is the founding member of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. initiative in Livingston, and the Hindu Representative at Interfaith Clergy Association. She has just been selected by the Obama Administration as a member of the faith based initiative.
She did her first puja for friends who were having a Satya Narayan puja for their home, and learnt the meaning of the Sanskrit shlokas from Dr. M.G. Prasad of the Bridgewater Temple in New Jersey.
She was motivated by passing on the Hindu culture to her young daughter. She says, “I grew as my daughter grew. I would say actually for me doing pujas took 25 years of preparation. Most people go from ritual to philosophy; I have gone from philosophy to ritual. Puja has brought the philosophy to life for me.” And yes, as a pujari, she gets a ‘Dakshana’ or offering which she donates to charitable causes like cataract surgeries in India.
Indeed women priests do seem to go the extra mile to reach out to the congregation and explain the meaning of the Sanskrit slokas. “Most people do not know what Hinduism is, what Sanatana Dharma is and the ritual process,” says Bhargava, “I have prepared a powerpoint presentation to explain the context and the meaning of the symbols and why we do it. It is not just a traditional recitation. I want people to come away with more of an understanding of the Vedantic Hindu tradition and the richness of the puja.”
Bhargava finds that for women priests the drawback is the limited access to trained teachers and schools. She feels there is a need for Hindu divinity and theology schools where people can get degrees. Ashrams generally do not teach the duties of a priest.
She says, “We definitely need to bridge the gap between philosophy and rituals; only then will the rituals be meaningful and not just something we are doing because someone is telling us to do in a language we don’t understand.”
Ask Bhatt about the value of women priests and she says, “Women here are the mothers and the nurturers and are more concerned about the continuity of religion and culture. We bring a different kind of energy so the more women come into the field, the better it will be for the community.”
Women not only bring sincerity and dedication to the job but are also more flexible and more accepting of new ideas. Says Bhatt, “Becoming a woman priest in itself is a departure from what has been the custom for many centuries and so women are more open to doing things differently.”
Indeed, Shashi Tandon has performed marriages for not only intercultural couples but also for Hindus marrying Muslims. The regular pujaris had all refused to do the wedding between a Muslim girl and a Hindu boy but Tandon flew out to the Virgin Islands to perform this ceremony.
“The priests were not ready to do this but I see it as a relationship of the soul – I have no problem with that,” she says. “In ancient times there used to be a swyamvara where the women chose their own partners. Sita chose Rama, and Parvati chose Shivji. Did they know what their caste was? It’s just their love.”
Tandon, being mother and grandmother, feels it is vital for Hinduism to be explained properly to the next generation and she believes many women are losing their culture here in America. She says, “Women can be pilots, presidents, models, go for cigarette advertisements, so why can’t they be priests? Now things are getting clear – if the mother is not wise, the children are going to be frustrated – I have seen so many teenagers and they ask me questions and they say their mothers don’t know about those things.”
“I have performed so many weddings, and sometimes the boy doesn’t even know who Ram is!” she adds incredulously. “Teenagers want to know what we are, who we are and what we should do, which path we should follow. How can they succeed in another culture if they don’t know their own culture? This is because parents have no guts to sit down and talk to them and tell them the realities of life.” So she tries to do the needful by performing the sixteen sanskaras and bringing the Hindu way into their lives.
And what would she say to those who would say you have to be a Brahmin to perform the rituals?
She says: “You know what the definition of a Brahmin is? He who walks on the path of Brahma is a Brahman. Sant Ravidas was a cobbler, Kabir a weaver. –What you do has nothing to do with who you are. I’ve worked at Wal-Mart but on Saturday and Sunday I served my society.”
She adds, “People move like sheep through life but I’m not sheep – I set my own direction and I think for myself. I can work for anybody but I have my own thoughts. I have ancient scriptures and I set my course by these scriptures and I have found the truth and I am sharing it with others.”
Yes, times are changing and women are taking matters into their own hands rather than depend on manmade scripts. Bhatt consulted the ancient texts when she did her nephew’s sacred thread ceremony and brought her own perspectives into the event.
“From the books I referred to it seems that in earlier times girls were given initiation – then it stopped,” she says. “So I said to the gathering that it would be nice if girls too were included. Why should not the girl child also be given the sacred thread? It means initiation into knowledge – everyone has a right to it.”
Besides becoming the interpreters of faith, religion and spirituality, women are also assuming leadership roles in temple organizations, especially in small communities where new temples are being constructed. Women realize, time and again, that the future of religion and values lies with them.
While most of the Hindu women priests are self-taught, a few are taking it to the next level – studying Hinduism in an organized fashion and becoming ordained as priests. When Pandita Indrani Rampersad got ordained in 1992 in Trinidad there was considerable controversy. She recalls that the Arya Samaj sampradaya was supportive but many of the more orthodox schools opposed her ordination. She says, “For me, the big thing was that it opened up the conversation.”
Why did she want to become a priest? She says, “When I first went to India to study more about Hindu dharma in 1973 I went to Benares Hindu University but found there was no course on theology.” She ended up doing Indian philosophy and on her return to Trinidad she was encouraged by her grandfather, who was a priest, to get initiated.
“As an activist for women’s rights, one of the motivating factors was why can’t I be a priest if I want to?” she says. “I was already doing a lot of the priestly functions like delivering the lectures in the temple but I was not allowed to do the rituals. I would ask myself why not?”
Rampersad, who works as a school teacher, is qualified to do all 16 Sanskaras and performs them both in New York and Trinidad. She finds people are open to a woman doing these rituals. She says, “A lot of this is educational – when I perform rituals I use a lot more of the time for educating; the ritual for me is the center around which I can educate. For a lot of the male priests the ritual is the center and that’s it.”
Interestingly, unlike the traditional male pujaris who often speak little or no English, these part-time women pujaris are all fluent in English besides Sanskrit and some other Indian languages, and so can reach out to the younger generation.
She says, “Definitely we need women priests – women are half the population and they are more sensitive. We can counsel young women and they would feel comfortable – they would not confide in a male priest.”
She also believes that women have to take charge of rituals, especially in the home, for the mother is the center of the family and determines the tone of the home: “ If she is educated in the sanskaras then the sanskaras will be passed on to the next generation. Even if a woman doesn’t perform rituals she should know how to do them so that she can at least do Diwali puja for the children.”
Increasingly women are taking a more proactive role in spiritual matters. Satish Prakash who heads the Dayanand Gurukul in Jamaica, Queens in New York has trained several women who are now practicing priests. The gurukul is based on the model of the Gurukul Kangra University in India and it serves as a temple on Sundays and as a spiritual school for the Guyanese Hindu community.
Prakash, a Sanskrit scholar whose PhD dissertation was on rights and rituals, recently conducted workshops where over 268 delegates from across the US and Canada came to get training in Hindu philosophy and the 16 Sanskaras.
“There were more women than men,” he recalls. “I ordained 49 women who got certification and title of panditas.” Most of the women were Hindus originally from the Caribbean countries and from Fiji and Mauritius. Do they plan to be priests? Yes, says Prakash, they will go out into their respective communities and temples and they will practice: “That is one of our tenets – anyone who goes through the training can be a priest.”
Women are bringing modernity to an ancient calling. Bhargava, for instance, along with the performance of the Satyanarayan puja does a PowerPoint presentation of Sanathana Dharma, with explanations in English! She says, “The transformation for me is bringing all that knowledge and all these experiences and selecting the areas where I can be most effective. We need bridges and I feel I’m part of that, bringing the traditional rituals into contemporary life and making them more relevant.”
Women priests are special in that for them it is not just a job but a calling. They are willing to devote time and energy to explanations and interactions and are not driven by monetary considerations – many of them have good day jobs or are comfortably retired. The future looks hopeful as more and more women take charge of passing on the dharma to the next generation.
Tandon’s grandson was just one week old when she journeyed to America 24 years ago to impart the Hindu sanskaras to him. Today he is a wonderful young man about to become a doctor. The other day he told her, “Nani, when I have children you have to teach them all that you have taught me.” As a priest, Shashi Tandon intends to do that not only for him but also for the children of the larger Hindu community.
© Lavina Melwani