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Women priests overtaken male counterparts in Maharashtra - The Hindu

PTI ()
5 February 1997

Title : Women priests overtaken male counterparts in Maharashtra
Author : PTI
Publication : The Hindu
Date : February 5, 1997

With an increasing number of men of religion taking up other more
lucrative vocations, women are now stepping into the gap to
actually outnumber male priests in Maharashtra.

Dr. V L. Manjul, a research scholar and chief librarian at Pune's
Bhandarkar Oriental Re. search Institute, says "between 1986 and
'96, about 6,000 women have been trained as purohits (priests) and
today, lady purohits outnumber male ones."

In a research paper presented at the 7th international conference
on "Maharashtra: Culture and Society," held recently, he says the
society itself has welcomed this development and extended support
to women priests, who are now easily available and display more
dedication and affinity in conducting various vows and sacrifices.

The male priests first criticised and opposed the women priests by
invoking religious authorities. They felt a "soft-hearted" woman
priest could not perform difficult rites like obsequious
anniversaries (shraddhas).

However, only last month, a woman priest performed even the last
rites of a person, proving critics wrong and breaking the monopoly
of a priestly family in Pune, whose male members alone were
performing these rites so far, Dr. Manjul told PTI.

In the Vedic period, says Dr. Manjul, "we come across female
scholars like Ghosha, Lopamudra, Romasha and Indrani. In the
Upanishadic period, names of women philosophers like Sulabha,
Maitreyi, Gargi are encountered."

This tradition is exemplified in a verse from
"Bhihadaranyakopanishad," which reads "atha ya icched duhita me
pandita jayeta," (a well-to-do man always thinks that his daughter
should be a scholar).

A complete turn-around in this attitude came at the time of
Shankaracharya, who, according to Dr. Manjul, interpreted the verse
narrowly, commenting that the term "pandita" in the verse connotes
not "scholar" but "a woman being adept in household duties."

Political instability and successive foreign invasions further made
it difficult for women to take up formal learning, which made it
impossible for her to undertake Vedic studies and conduct Vedic

As a result, even in sacrificial rites, a women's role was only
that of the wife of the person offering sacrifice and she was just
to be a witness to the rites without any direct participation.

"It is for this reason we do not come across a female priest in our
religious tradition spanning over a millenium," Dr. Manjul says.

At the beginning of this century, a religious teacher, Upasani
Baba, a contemporary of Sat Baba of Shirdi, started a hermitage at
Sakori for women, who were addressed as 'sat!'.

In this ashram, training was imparted to 'satis' on performance of
worship, sacred recitations, chanting of bhajans, discourses,
'kirtanas', the study of the Vedas, instructions about sacrificial
rites and so on.

Sanskrit was the medium of day-to-day communication in the ashram
so that the 'satis' became fluent in the language. The satis, says
Dr. Manjul, directed the performance of sacrifices not only in
Maharashtra but in other provinces also.

To keep the 'sati' tradition alive, Pune-based Shankar Seva Samiti
began special classes in 1 9 76 to train women in priestly work and
make them fluent in Sanskrit.

In the beginning, Dr. Manjul says, there were only 16 women
trainees, but owing to positive response from the society and
growing demand for priests, their strength increased 10-fold to 160
by 1986.

Along with the unmarried ones, many married women. widows and
divorcees also took up this religious training. They were initially
trained in the knowledge of worship rites, reading of religious
texts, marriage procedures, 'upanayana' (sacred thread ceremony)
and conducting different types of sacrifices.

The women priests began their priesthood by performing rites
connected with 'abhisheka' (bathing of the deity), special worships
and the rites for different vows and observances.

It is significant that this field of activity was not restricted to
Brahmin women alone but was thrown open to women members of all

A survey conducted by Dr. Manjul also showed that families of the
women priests also appreciated and encouraged their taking up
duties as 'purohita'.

With the passage of time, more and more women priests have been
replacing their male counterparts in conducting domestic sacrifices
in cities like Mumbai, Pune, Nasik and Kolhapur.

Over the years, the conduct of worships or sacrifices by male
priests had become so lifeless and artificial that the dedication
displayed by women priests has become a primary reason for their
growing popularity, Dr. Manjul says.

Originally, women had taken up duties of priests as a hobby, Dr.
Manjul says. Later many of them looked upon it as a source to
augment the income of their families.

Thus, initially they were performing rites without charging any
money, but as time passed on, they began to accept some amount as

The women priests who were trained by the samiti spread the
knowledge by opening classes in various houses and as the number of
students grew, the concept of 'woman purohita' become popular. This
activity is now spread at least in 10 districts of Maharashtra, and
according to Dr. Manjul, women priests are getting almost the same
amount as 'dakshina' normally earned by their male counterparts.

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