Suniti GadgilPUNE, India (WOMENSENEWS)–This year, Preeti Agarwal, a 30-year-old housewife, broke tradition during the Feb. 11 rituals to worship the birth of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge.

For the first time, she invited a female priest to her home to conduct the ceremony, or “puja,” to mark the auspicious day when children learn to read and write their first letters or words. Families dress in yellow–symbolizing spring and the blossoming of mustard flowers–and gather to pray for the blessing of knowledge in an elaborate ceremony set to background chants and drumbeats.

In the past, Agarwal has followed customary practice and invited a male priest–known as a pandit–to observe the tradition.

“Most of the time, a pandit would be so busy that he would just chant the mantras and finish his job and leave,” says Agarwal. “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.”

This year, the puja was different, she says. Her 7-year-old daughter asked lots of questions and Sunita Joshi, the female priest who conducted it, answered them all patiently.

Agarwal lives in Pune, a city in the western, progressive part of India where women are joining the priesthood even as they are barred from entering temples in other parts of the country.

Pune led the effort in India to draw girls into school and educate them, and was also one of the first cities to allow widows to remarry, a concept that was once largely absent in traditional Hindu culture.

Although a few women have trained as pandits in the southern city of Hyderabad, Pune is on the vanguard. While Hinduism does not technically bar women from becoming priests, it is not accepted as standard practice in most of India. Even in Pune the idea is novel, and people have taken time in accepting it. Women who have taken up the work have faced strong resistance from male pandits.

Formal Training in Women’s School

Pune’s revolution to allow women into the priesthood began in the early 1980s, when Shankarrao Thatte–owner of a premier marriage hall in the city, the Udyan Karyalaya–launched the Shankar Seva Samiti, a school to train female priests.

The casual approach of the male priests toward the rituals and ceremonies prompted Thatte to start four-month training courses for women. Today, Pune has two schools for female priests, Thatte’s Shankar Seva Samiti and Jnana Prabodhini.

Vishwanath Gurjar, who heads the priesthood division of Jnana Prabodhini, says that women have an equal right to “moksha,” the Hindu concept of the liberation of the soul from the continual cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. According to him, there is nothing in the scriptures to suggest that women are not equal to men.

Says Gurjar: “It is only the mindset of people that stops them from accepting women in certain roles.” His school started out with three-month courses for female priests and has since expanded to eight months. So far, 12 classes of 30 to 35 students each have completed the course.

Personal Interests, Professional Gains

Interest in the scriptures and rituals of worship are generally the inspiration for women to study the priesthood, says Gurjar. Some do it for their personal education, others out of interest in the profession. Pandits earn a fee for each ritual they perform, ranging between $1.25 and $3, but customers also tip them a little extra if they are happy with the rites.

Sandhya Kulkarni, a scholar and “purohit”–another word for pandit–started practicing professionally some 10 years ago. She has completed a doctorate in Sanskrit, the classical language in which the most important Hindu scriptures are written.

“Initially I decided to study scriptures because I was very interested in the Sanskrit language,” she says. “Later I developed a genuine interest in the priesthood and decided to take it up as a profession. Apart from that I also felt that I should not blindly follow the rituals but should know the reasoning behind them.”

Hinduism is the world’s oldest major religion and contains a vast body of scriptures, which contemplate mythology, philosophy and theology and expound on the practice of religious living. The important scriptures include the four Vedas, as well as the Manusmriti, Ramayana, Bhagvad Gita and Mahabharta. Primary tenets include moksha and karma, the belief that actions have subsequent reactions. The divine takes many forms and rituals are often observed at home on a daily basis.

Women have made headway in routine religious rituals like marriage; the thread ceremony, a rite of passage for boys; or the house-warming ceremony. But rituals and ceremonies related to death still continue to be observed only by male pandits. Kulkarni is one of the few female priests who has conducted death rites, partly because women are by tradition not allowed to enter the cremation ground and cremation itself is done by the male members of the family.

Shortage of Men for Festivals

Initially, women were invited to conduct rituals only when male pandits were unavailable during the hectic festival season, from the end of August to November. Many a time, female priests found the appointment canceled because an elderly member of the family objected to them.

“There is a marked difference in the attitude of the people in the last three to four years, says Kulkarni. “There is an increased acceptance of women priests in the city now. In many instances, they are preferred over male priests. Women do it with a sense of mission and that is the main difference. People appreciate that we explain the meaning of chants and mantras.”

Their acceptance as pandits has been eased by a recognition that the priesthood did not come to them by inheritance, but rather as a result of genuine interest and hard work to prove their worthiness. When men inherit the job they do not necessarily receive an education or training, and there is a general disaffection with male pandits among some Indians who believe they take the work for granted.

Female priests do face some cultural barriers. For instance, a menstruating woman is considered impure and is traditionally not allowed to enter a temple or to take part in rituals. The female pandits keep that in mind and don’t conduct any rituals during those days.

Madhuri Karavade has been a purohit for the last seven years.

“My in-laws are very traditional and I didn’t know much about the rituals so I decided to come here to study,” Karavade says. “I liked it so much that I took it up professionally.”

She says her most satisfying moment came when she was able to conduct the “upnayan” rite, which initiates a young boy into Hinduism. Her ceremony included both boys and girls.

Gagandeep Kaur is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi, India.

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