Hindu priestesses break centuries-old restrictions in an effort to change mindsets.
nāsti strīṇāṃ kriyā mantrairiti dharme vyavasthitiḥ |
nirindriyā hyamantrāśca strībhyo anṛtamiti sthitiḥ ||
नास्ति स्त्रीणां क्रिया मन्त्रैरिति धर्मे व्यवस्थितिः ।
निरिन्द्रिया ह्यमन्त्राश्च स्त्रीभ्यो अनृतमिति स्थितिः ॥
[For women, there is no dealing with the sacred texts; such is the rule of law; the fact is that being destitute of organs and devoid of sacred texts, women are ‘false’— (Verse 9.18, Manusmriti)]
It is said that the first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance. Society reforms and benefits through this constant churning of perception and endorsement of new ideas, which leads to gradual adaptation of resulting changes. This takes time, but it happens, nonetheless.
In India, however, we see a tendency among a substantial proportion of the populace to be averse to any kind of transition; change is frowned upon and century-old regulations still continue to dictate ways of life – from hierarchical social standing to position of women in the family. A woman’s life experience, according to the Dharmashastras (Religious texts), has been defined in relation to men upon whom she has to remain dependent.
No wonder there is an audible gasp from them when she tries to undo the shackles and share the same rights as a man. This is also perhaps why stories of Indian women breaking glass ceilings make a huge impact on our lives. It denotes a struggle and reaching the pinnacle of achievement against all odds.
Resistance has been brewing for generations in some households; we have often heard stories of mothers and grandmothers blazing the horizons with their accomplishments, but a full-blown anti-patriarchal push, in recent times, may have been set in motion by four women from Kolkata who decided to bulldoze their way into the sacred and hallowed male bastion of Hindu priesthood.
The four Bengali women – Nandini, Ruma, Seemanti and Paulomi, formed a group called Shubham Astu, meaning, ‘may everyone be blessed’. They read the scriptures, deciphered their meanings and learnt to interpret them in a way that would make the mantras relevant to the current time. They translate the Sanskrit shlokas into Bengali and English, their only intention, they declare, is to revive interest of Indian culture and heritage for the younger generation sans the strict orthodoxy, ambiguity or gender inequality. Their fresh approach to religious and social events have made them very popular at wedding ceremonies where young couples accept each other as equals and both take oaths to protect the other.
Nandini and her group of priestesses have done away with the concept of Kanyadaan, or giving away of the daughter, as though she was a piece of property being transferred from a father to the husband. Couples these days accept each other as equals and are most thrilled to have finally found a ceremony that is traditional and yet not archaic. It does not make one partner feel smaller than the other in any way.
It wasn’t always this easy for the ladies of Shubham Astu, though. They have been called to weddings where after completing the ceremony in their way, a traditional priest has been asked to repeat the ceremony all over again.
The ladies recite the wedding mantras and follow them up with beautiful renditions of Rabindra Sangeet, making it an occasion to remember for everyone present.
There was a major celebration at 66 Pally Durga Puja pandal at Rash Behari Avenue in Kolkata last year when a centuries-old tradition was broken by allowing the women priestesses of Shubham Atsu to conduct Durga Puja – a first-time women in India have been able to conduct a communal Durga Puja ceremony. This does not signify a crusade or even a campaign, but it has attained significance because their unique venture has started a conscious debate about the position of women in Indian Hindu society.
In a video aired by Jiyo Bangla, Nandini, former visiting faculty at the Sanskrit department of Jadavpur University, Kolkata, theatre actor and founder member of Shubham Astu, says, ‘‘In 80% of households, women conduct pujas, so why not in mass community settings? We have seen our mothers and grandmothers do these daily pujas at home but as soon as it comes to a community or social ceremony, this discrimination begins. Only a male priest is acceptable on such occasions. The reasons given – a woman is impure because she menstruates for a few days every month. This is what we are trying to break out of, because not only is menstruation not a sign of impurity, but we also believe it is a celebration of womanhood.’’
“Ruma and I were in Lady Brabourne College, and our Sanskrit teacher, Gouri Dharmapal (recipient of Certificate of Honour by the President of India in 2010), was the first to come up with the idea of simplifying and shortening the ceremonies. She is the first one to bring about a change in these age-old customs. So, we owe this reform to her,’’ Says Nandini.
Indian Hindu women have always been conveniently regarded as the conservators of dharma and the protector of patriarchal values. An Indian man has no such tags and can live a life free from any stigma or smirch that is invariably associated with authoritarian community guidelines. The only ones to have benefitted in any way from these ancient set of rules have been men, and changes to the protocol are always met with fire and fury – a societal dictum that is conveniently practised in the garb of religious orthodoxy. An uninterrupted primordial custom of glorifying men for their successes and women for their sacrifices.
It is indeed a matter of concern when you realise that rules and regulations set up for a society that existed around the 5th Century C.E. are still used in most cases to control the life of a woman in 21st Century India, silencing and blowing out any whiff of resistance from anyone who cares to object. Fortunately, a few cracks are finally beginning to appear on this patriarchal glass dome these days.
Endorsement of this need for change from actor/producer and social worker Dia Mirza Rekhi has come as a pleasant surprise to many. In February last year, her own marriage ceremony was officiated by a woman priest.
In an Instagram post, Dia described with rapture the momentous event: ‘‘The highest point for us was the Vedic ceremony conducted by a woman priest! I had never seen a woman performing a wedding ceremony until I attended my childhood friend Ananya’s wedding a few years ago.’’
‘‘Ananya’s wedding gift to Vaibhav and me was to bring Sheela Atta, who is her aunt and also a priestess, to perform the ceremony for us. She also painstakingly went through several hours of training to imbibe the essence of the scriptures so that she could assist Sheela Atta and translate the shlokas! It was such a privilege and a joy to be married this way! We do hope with all our heart that many more couples make this choice,’’ she said.
‘‘We said NO to ‘Kanyadaan’ and ‘Bidaai’. Change begins with choice, doesn’t it?’’ Dia added.
Changing gender stereotypes can be tough. Even for those who are trying to bring about this change, the journey can be extremely challenging. One just has to push on.
Sushma Dwivedi is breaking glass ceilings of a different kind in the USA. She is a female Hindu priest who conducts weddings and other religious services, mostly for the LGBTQ community.
In an interview with The New York Times, Sushma said she offers “progressive, inclusive, LGBTQ friendly” religious services such as baby-naming, housewarmings and business blessings to people who are “straight, gay, having an interracial marriage or who just want a female pundit”.
Dwivedi has officiated over 33 weddings, nearly half of which have been for same-sex couples. She decided to follow this path soon after her marriage in 2013 when she was made aware that a close relative of her husband was trans. As a result, she decided to get herself ordained online by the Universal Life Church.
Sushma founded the Purple Pundit Project in 2016 to help and support the south Asian gay community. Her website says: “Purple represents spirit within the LGBTQ rainbow. Indians in the LGBTQ community are a spirited minority within a spirited minority.”
How is her Hindu wedding ceremony different to that of a traditional one? She takes just 35 minutes to complete it during which the couple offer prayers to Lord Ganesha and then take laps around a sacred fire, each lap denoting commitment and promises made to each other.
The idea of Hindu women priests is catching on in other parts of the world too. Pradipta Mukherjee, of Tauranga, New Zealand, is planning to conduct Saraswati Puja at the community hall of her suburb next month. The decision came after she and her group of friends couldn’t find a single male priest to conduct the Puja this year. Pradipta, or Kutu as her friends fondly call her, thought about it for a few days and finally decided to do something that hasn’t been tried thus far in the land of the long white cloud.
Pradipta has been a social worker for a long time, helping victims of abuse among immigrant families. Like many other non-resident Indian families, she has been organising Lakshmi and Saraswati pujas at her home for many years, but she has been doing them on a small scale. The idea of a community puja overwhelmed her at first, but she got more confident as she thought about it.
Her sister-in-law in India, who is a PhD in Sanskrit and has in-depth knowledge of the Vedanta, is willing to help her out. Another friend in Wellington who is much in demand for his years of experience in performing community pujas in the city, has promised to email her all the mantras she would need.
‘‘This and my own research into Tagore’s songs will be enough,’’ Pradipta says. ‘‘I want to invoke the Goddess through my passion. Saraswati is after all the Goddess of knowledge and learning, so I would like to do it my way. Rituals and traditions will be followed, but in a way that gives it meaning.’’
The courage to break into a male-dominated profession in India is seen in every field. For the first time, we see someone like Rekha Karthikeyan become the first woman to get a deep-sea fishing licence after fighting off societal superstition and gender discrimination.
Another incredible feat of smashing the male bastion came in the form of a 20-member all-women group who constructed an entire 475 square feet house in Kerala’s Idukki district in less than two months. Or take the example of a very popular musical band comprising of 10 Dalit women near Patna, Bihar, who are creating a storm breaking social stereotypes, performing at weddings and other public functions.
Despite these pathbreaking stories, the idea of keeping women in their place and thus enforcing patriarchal hegemony is still being exploited in India by all, including political leaders. Women are thrown deeper into an abyss of thinly disguised misogyny every other day. If social media mirrors society, then a casual glance at it would reflect the insurmountable problem of deep-rooted prejudice against accepting women on equal terms. Women cannot dissent – not in politics, nor in any sphere of life. Denigrating women has become a widely accepted practice among faceless, anonymous social media account holders who, with the blessings of those in power, even use advanced technology to threaten, bully and trash women who dare to speak up on issues they are ‘not supposed to’. The most shocking aspect of this is that they are almost always left unpunished, and their misogyny is labelled a ‘prank’.
People need to stand up against the conscious efforts being made to highlight Manusmriti, an ancient Hindu text and project it as the ‘Constitution’ of India. Take, for example, this ‘teaching’ that it promulgates, and which is so often heard from elected leaders in India these days:
pitā rakṣati kaumāre bhartā rakṣati yauvane |
rakṣanti sthavire putrā na strī svātantryamarhati ||
(पिता रक्षति कौमारे भर्ता रक्षति यौवने ।
रक्षन्ति स्थविरे पुत्रा न स्त्री स्वातन्त्र्यमर्हति ॥)
This text [Verse 9.3, Manusmriti] translates to: “The father guards her during virginity, the husband guards her in youth, the sons guard her in old age; the woman is never fit for independence.” Ideological differences apart, does this even remotely reflect an aspiring society that continues to produce brilliant women in all fields?
Every woman in India fights discrimination from the moment she is old enough to understand it. She is powerless to stop others walking all over her dreams and aspirations, from the use of force or coercion, violence, constraint, psychological manipulation or abuse of power; even the cunning use of religious texts comes in handy. Any woman who is able to endure this and emerge from it is nothing short of a ‘super-woman’, a headliner – not in the physical sense of the term but in the quiet calmness of her resolve and determination.
Pioneers like Nandini, Sushma and Pradipta are striking at the root of patriarchy. These women priests are questioning the very basis of the structure that India stands on. And winning.