Opening up the Hindu priesthood

In the city of Pune, India, women not only are accepted but are preferred for performing certain rituals.

By Catherine Price
Published February 26, 2008 5:35PM (EST)

Here's some good news, brought to us by Women's eNews: In the western Indian city of Pune, women are studying for the priesthood and conducting Hindu ceremonies. That's a big deal because while Hinduism doesn't technically forbid women from becoming priests, traditionally the priesthood has been male -- and even in Pune, which the article describes as a very progressive area (it was one of the first cities in India to allow widows to remarry, for example), the idea has been met with resistance. But now, slowly, some people have warmed up to the idea -- which is especially impressive given the fact that in other areas of India, women are not even allowed to enter temples.

One interesting point made by the article is that some of the families who have invited female priests into their homes now prefer them over their male counterparts because they put more time and effort into the ceremonies. As one women quoted by the article explains, "Most of the time, a pandit [priest] would be so busy that he would just chant the mantras and finish his job and leave ... He wouldn't explain the meaning of the mantras or the meaning behind the rituals. This is not the case with women priests. I first saw a woman conducting religious rituals at a friend's place and was impressed. I decided that the next time there was a puja at my place, I will invite a woman priest only."

As the article points out, this difference probably is a result of several factors: First, male priests are really busy, especially during the festival season from the end of August until November. Also, many male priests have inherited their jobs, and have not necessarily received formal training, the article reports. The female priests, on the other hand, have had to go to school for training and have achieved their status as priests out of "genuine interest and hard work." Still, while they've made headway in places like Pune, it has been difficult to convince people that female priests are acceptable, so it makes sense that the women would put a bit more effort into their ceremonies. (In fact, dissatisfaction with male priests is part of the reason that the owner of a Pune marriage hall opened a school for female priests in the early 1980s.)

Some obstacles to female priests still remain in Pune: Women are not supposed to perform ceremonies that have to do with death, for example, since traditionally women cannot enter the cremation grounds and cremations themselves are carried out by men. Also, menstruating women are considered unpure, so female priests often refrain from performing ceremonies when they've got their periods. But even with forced menstruation leave, that some areas of India are beginning to accept women as priests is a very encouraging sign.

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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