Jyotsna Padmanabhan, 18, is not bothered by the fact that she has been stoking a fire among the conservative Brahmin community in Kerala. That’s because she has become Kerala’s first woman priest breaking centuries-old tradition of males leading the ceremonies. The state had grabbed headlines when it appointed 36 non-Brahmins, including six Dalits, as priests in temples under the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages at least 1,248 shrines, including the Lord Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala—entry of women is restricted in the temple—in October 2017.
Jyotsna, who works at Sree Krishna Temple, Ponjanam, near Kattoor in Thrissur, was not much aware about the debates taking place about whether young women should be allowed to enter temples like Sabarimala. “According to my belief, the position of women is well-defined in tantra,” says the BA Sanskrit second-year student at Sree Sankara College, Kalady.
She was exposed to tantric rituals right from her childhood. “I had conducted installation of a goddess’ idol at the temple when I was 12. And since then, I had been holding temple rituals,” says Jyotsna. Her father, who is the chief priest of the temple, Padmanabhan Naboothiripad of Tharanellur Thekkiniyedathu Mana, says, “No Hindu or tantric tradition prohibits women from performing rituals in temples. In fact, women are the most appropriate person to hold priestly pujas as the psyche of a woman is more charged with spiritual awareness than men. And it is a fact that awakening happens more quickly in a female than a male.”
She says she had stepped into the priesthood, not with a focus on breaking the barriers of gender and age. “I feel self-absorbed, pious and emotionally connected to the supreme power while doing the daily pujas,” she says. “For me, it is upasana and I don’t take it as a job.” Tharanellur Veluthedathu Padmanabhan Namboothiripad, a priest of the Thriprayar Sri Rama Temple, had initiated Jyotsna into the world of tantra. “Man is not complete without a woman as she is the centre of power. So is the case with god, which is evident from the fact that Shakti is considered as a creator, and Shiva is instrumental—two important poles of energy in tantra,” he says.
Talking about differing beliefs of people on whether women should be allowed to do puja in temples, 52-year-old Yashodharan, who resides close to the temple, says, “I was quite doubtful about the efficacy of her pujas in the initial days as we were witnessing a totally different custom. But gradually, I came to terms with the reality as she was more emotionally charged and absorbed while doing pujas, than anyone else.”
Jyotsna doesn’t have any plans to take priesthood as a career. “But I want to do research on tantra from the perspective of women as no one has dared to do such a work till date in my knowledge,” she says.
Akkeeramon Kalidasa Bhattathirippad, vice-president of the All India Brahmin Federation, says, “The ancient texts do not forbid the women from performing pujas and rituals. The only thing is that women, who wish to perform the rituals, should rise to an exalted position mentally and physically.”
He says the dedication of a woman—be it in the case of upasana or rearing kids—is far superior to men. “So technically, they are fit to perform the tantric rituals. But they should follow the customs, traditions, and precedence laid down by the acharyas, as sanctity is very important in temple rituals,” Bhattathirippad adds.