For centuries, many Hindu rituals have been performed by male priests. But now a few institutions in Pune have begun offering courses to female priests.
Chitra Lele works as a female Hindu priest in Pune
Hindu chants ring through Pradnya Patil's new home. It's on the 11th floor of a luxury apartment building in Pune. In the sunny living room, statues of Hindu gods are arranged on the floor. A smell of incense fills the air. A traditional house-warming ceremony is underway.
But Pradnya Patil has broken with tradition today - the 35-year-old has invited a woman priest to perform the ritual. Patil is convinced that women priests are better than their male counterparts. "I recently attended a house-warming ceremony led by a male priest - it took five whole hours! But women priests perform similar rituals in just one hour. They explain the importance of the rituals and why they are still relevant. They're very sincere and committed. Now, my relatives and even my conservative father have switched to women priests."
Many Hindu pujas are elaborate rituals that take hours
Chitra Lele sits on the floor in Pradnya Patil's apartment and explains the ritual in the local language Marathi. She looks nothing like a traditional Hindu priest in austere white robes. Instead, she wears a colorful silk sari and trendy rimless glasses.
The 41-year-old is married and has a teenage daughter. She was drawn to the priesthood out of an interest in Hinduism and Sanskrit. She performs all kinds of rituals: naming ceremonies, weddings as well as festivals.
She says female priests have struck a chord among young urban Indians. "We women priests explain the gist of the ritual in just one hour. We try and involve the people watching. So we're popular among the young generation."
Women like Chitra Lele are challenging traditional notions of priesthood. And they are learning to do that at Pune's Dyanprabodhini center, which was started by a social reformer. The school's imposing stone building is located in the bustling old part of the city.
Mostly young, urban Hindus are calling the female priests for ceremonies
More than 20 women are currently enrolled in the one-year priesthood course. They come from all Hindu castes. Most are housewives between 40 and 65 years of age. They are trained in religious rituals and each of the 16 sacraments of Hinduism. And they’re taught Sanskrit, the country's classical language in which the Hindu religious mantras are chanted - and which few Indians understand.
"We have a great pleasure that women who are learning here are performing outside in society very confidently. They are progressive but they still preserve our ancient traditions and culture also", says Aarya Joshi, teacher of the course. The 30-year-old explains that women priests largely perform religious ceremonies at private homes – not at temples. And they don't perform funerals or death rites either. They are more widely accepted in big cities than in more conservative rural India.
Joshi is a Sanskrit researcher herself. She's working on her doctorate on Hindu ancestral worship. She points out that Hinduism has never barred women from performing religious rites. There's even mention of them in ancient religious writings. But later men came to dominate the profession. They declared that priests could only be male and only from a particular Hindu caste. That thinking prevails till today.
"The problem occurs because I think that people don't have an exact idea of women priesthood", says Joshi. "They don't know that this is an ancient tradition for the past 5,000 years. It's a typical orthodox mindset. Some 25 percent of the people aren't ready to accept women priesthood. But we think it will change with the period of time, so we have to wait for that."
In Pune, female priests have become quite popular
On the hot, busy street outside the school, people are divided about whether women should work as priests.
"I don't think women should be conducting religious ceremonies. Our culture doesn't allow it. That's how it's always been," says one man. But another one is more open: "I don't have a problem with women priests. But I think it's bad if they conduct religious ceremonies during menstruation. It's impure." A woman adds, "I think it's good if women work as priests. As a woman, you feel less scared talking to them than you do to male priests."
Back at the school, Joshi says the main opposition to women priests usually comes from the male clergy. "Actually male priests, who are performing rituals in the traditional ways, have a great worry about their source of income because this is their bread and butter."
Anand Pandharpure agrees. He's been working as a priest for the last 20 years, having been trained at an early age by his own father. He says that to become a Hindu priest, men have to undergo rigorous daily training at special religious schools for at least 7 to 8 years. The 40-year-old is dismissive of what he calls "priesthood light" courses for women.
"You face many complex questions as a Hindu priest", says Pandharpure. "But women often can't answer them because they only get superficial training. And I think people are being fooled when so-called women priests shorten religious rituals. It's more like entertainment. It gives priesthood a bad name."
Pandharpure is dressed in the traditional clothes of a Hindu priest – a white dhoti and a black peaked cap. He rejects the idea that women priests pose a threat to him and his male colleagues. "Women often turn to priesthood after 40, once their kids have grown up, and they have nothing to do. But I don't think that’s right. Priesthood is not just a hobby. It's an important responsibility. For us men, being priests is a lifelong learning experience. But frankly we don't take the issue of women priests too seriously – their numbers are really negligible."
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Hindu rituals in English
They may not be taken seriously by some, but female priests are increasingly charting their own course in the male-dominated field. Manisha Shete has been working as a priest for three years. The cheerful 40-year-old has found a new target group for her services.
"Nowadays I conduct a lot of marriages in English because Indians who go abroad increasingly marry foreign partners. But they're keen on having an Indian wedding. And Indian parents who live overseas often want their children to learn about their culture. But the children don't understand Marathi. So I conduct the thread ceremony – a rite of passage for boys - in English."
The simplified rituals in English can sometimes lead to unexpected reactions. "A father of one of the boys once came to me and said 'you know, my thread ceremony was done decades ago – but it's only now that I understand why it was done and what it meant'", laughs Manisha Shete.
Author: Sonia Phalnikar (Pune)
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein