In the 21st century, women can do pretty much everything that men can. But you may not have met the fair sex officiating at a temple and that, too, a priestess with a degree in theology. It is time you did so.
Gone are the days when women were prohibited from performing shradh (last rites) and other such rituals. Sandhyavandanam Lakshmi Devi, the first woman to conduct rituals in Andhra Pradesh, has performed many last rites, including that of her teacher Gopadeva Sastry. “There is nothing in Hindu Vedic texts that bars women from carrying out cremations,” she explains. Behind the haze and smoke of a havan kund, V Seethalakshmi, 67, an expert on the Vedas, not only delivers scholarly discourses, but also conducts religious ceremonies. “It’s not that women weren’t allowed to do this. It’s just that somewhere along the line, it got lost. In most ancient scriptures, there have been women priests,” she argues.
Seethalakshmi believes priests and priestesses should together perform rituals. With less work on hand, they’ll be able to devote more time to the ceremonies. Perhaps for this reason, during Navaratri she is the most sought after. “I was doing puja on all nine days at different places. I always get invites for performing pujas because I devote a lot of time to the rituals and explain everything to the family for whom I am conducting the ceremony. They feel positive vibes after the puja,” says Seethalakshmi, who started performing pujas 25 years ago. “It always gives you the feeling that you are closer to God. You can communicate with him and also be friends with him,” she adds.
Seethalakshmi also teaches the scriptures at a centre in Hyderabad to a class of 50 women. “As they begin learning, they imbibe lots of samskars along with knowledge of the scriptures. This gives them peace and a sense of purpose. They perform pujas at community events and at home,” she says. While Seethalakshmi conducts ceremonies just for family and friends, Sandhyavandanam has been regularly presiding over religious ceremonies in Hyderabad. Ask Seethalakshmi about the importance of women priests and she says, “Becoming a woman priest in itself is a departure from what has been the custom for centuries and so women are more open to doing things differently.”
In Maharashtra, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, women priests are increasingly taking charge of the sanctum sanctorum. However, men still remain the first choice of most people, feels Lingambotla Vimala Kumari, 61. She says the main opposition to women priests usually comes from the male clergy. Working as Upa Pradhanarchaka and supervising Laksha kumkumarchana at Sri Durga Malleswara Swamy Temple, Vijayawada, at present, Vimala inherited the post of archaka (specially trained and ordained priests) at the renowned temple after her father’s death. As women are barred from performing pujas according to the Agama Shastra and Vedas, she was not allowed to directly perform puja. She was, however, allowed to recruit deputies and guide them instead.
The earliest mention of women participating in ritualistic offerings or brahmavadinis is in the Rig Veda. There were 27 brahmavadinis, who performed rituals and were also teachers. The history of priestesses is full of stories about women defying artificial limits. Time and again, they overcame obstacles, to lead, teach, counsel and inspire, often outside of official structures of authority, and usually in spite of them.
Gyan Kumari Pandey, 58, an astrologer and purohit, started practising professionally some 35 years ago. “People come to me to ward off evil and I perform yagnas. It took time to convince people. I tell them not to follow rituals blindly,” she says.
Pranaveswari, Rajeswari, Bhuvaneswari and Gnaneswari, all purohitas from Choutpally, Nizamabad, run a Vedic school only for girls. Having no brothers, they inherited the occupation from their father, Kancham Kansiram Joshi.
UK-based Chanda Vyas realised her childhood dream, when she became the first female Hindu priest to conduct weddings in the UK. “My father and grandfather were priests. When I decided to become one, some priests resisted. I said that’s fine with me. I have played all my roles as a daughter, wife and mother. And now it’s time to fulfill my dream,” says the priestess, who is in her early fifties.
“My husband is my mentor. It is said behind every successful man there is a woman, but in my case it’s the other way around,” Chanda quips. “It doesn’t say anywhere in the scriptures that women can’t be priests. It has more to do with traditions,” she says. “When men and women are equal in the eyes of God, who are we to discriminate.”