PUNE, India (RNS) — Wearing a single piece of unstitched cloth and a grass girdle around his waist, 8-year-old Harshal Kulkarni chants Vedic mantras. A sacred fire is kindled to initiate him into his second birth at a villa in Pune’s old city.
Harshal, a highborn Hindu in the social hierarchy, is set to transition from childhood to student life in the Upanayana, a ceremony reserved for the three higher groups in India’s caste system that traditionally marks a Hindu boy’s coming of age.
But Harshal’s rite of passage varies from tradition in one surprising detail. The celebrant behind the blazing hearth-altar at the center of Harshal’s Upanayana is Neela Khadkikar, a 65-year-old priestess dressed in a dark green sari who leads the incantations. For more than a decade, Khadkikar, one of a growing number of Hindu priestesses, has solemnized marriage, birth and death ceremonies for Hindus in India and abroad.
“If women are taking strides in other professions, why can’t they in the spiritual sphere?” asks Khadkikar, smearing the boy’s forehead with vermilion.
Citing scholars who say women in ancient India took part in religious activities, women like Khadkikar say nothing in Hindu practice or scripture forbids their participation. In ancient India, “fewer taboos were attached to women priests,” says Nanditha Krishna, a historian and professor at the University of Madras.
As gender equality grows in India thanks to gains in education as well as the spread of social media, young urban Indians especially are warming to the idea of women in the priesthood.
Aohona Datta, a consultant from Delhi who was married last year, says she was convinced to hire Nandini Bhowmik, a priestess from Kolkata, by her rhythmic chanting of the wedding mantras and her lack of ostentation. By contrast, Datta says, male priests’ recitations sound rote. “What Nandini is doing is bolder, purer and spiritually uplifting,” she says.
There are about 2,000 women priests in the state of Maharashtra, home to India’s cultural capital, Mumbai, according to Bhagyalata Pataskar, the director of Vaidik Samshodhana Mandala, an institute in Pune dedicated to the study of the Vedas, Hinduism’s oldest scriptures.
The Jnana Prabodhini Institute, a reform-minded high school in Pune, recently opened a wing for female aspirants, where they spend a year training in ancient spiritual practices and reading classical texts. “It’s a rigorous course, and not everyone passes the final test,” says Preeti Chandrachud, a 44-year-old sales representative at a pharmaceutical company and student at Jnana Prabodhini.
“Our current batch has 20 women,” says Manisha Shete, an education coordinator at the institute. “This was unthinkable 30 years ago.”
Chandrachud says, “We want to work against discrimination along gender, caste and religious lines.”
Critics of the trend maintain that if Hindu scripture doesn’t forbid female priests, rules surrounding rituals do. Menstruating women, for instance, are considered ritually impure. The custom of giving gifts to priests who perform various ceremonies, traditionalists say, makes for unseemly situations for male patrons and married priestesses.
Male clerics also accuse the women of taking shortcuts to the priesthood. Madhav Kelkar, a traditional priest in Pune, calls Jnana Prabodhini’s yearlong training for women unfair to men, who often prepare for years before mastering the ceremonies. “You just can’t get through the learning curve in a year,” he says.
Indeed, some of the priestesses have taken an entrepreneurial approach, studying scripture on their own and developing ceremonies that they say resonate with the modern times.
Bhowmik, the priestess from Kolkata, rejects the traditional wedding practice, known as kanyadaan, in which the bride is given away to the groom’s family. Instead, she promotes equal participation of both genders. “Spirituality (does not mean) blindly conforming to certain practices,” Bhowmik says.
After a decade as a priestess, Bhowmik solemnizes up to 15 ceremonies a year. Families who have hired her keep track of her work on Facebook and Twitter and call on her for other occasions. “The fear of going against tradition held them back. That is changing,” she says.
Women in Islam, India’s other major religion, are taking tentative steps forward too. Earlier this year, Jamida Teacher, general secretary of the Quran Sunnath Society, a progressive Islamic rights organization, made history by leading Friday prayer at a mosque in the Malappuram district of Kerala. “The Quran does not discriminate between man and woman,” says Teacher, who claims to be the first woman imam in India. “These orthodox beliefs need to be weeded out.”
Many of the 50 congregants present for Teacher’s khutbah — a sermon delivered after the jumah prayers — seemed to approve. A man who identified himself only as Ahmed says: “Women’s emancipation is possible only by breaking stereotypes and applying progressive thoughts from the Quran in real life. Jamida’s efforts should be lauded.”
Not surprisingly, however, Teacher and her group have drawn the ire of extremists. After attacks on social media and threatening telephone calls, including a warning that her daughter would be assaulted, she sought police protection earlier this year.
The threats haven’t halted Teacher’s spiritual quest. She wants to continue spreading the message that Islam doesn’t prohibit women from leading prayers. “I will speak out against regressive rituals that tie Muslim women down,” she says.
Like the Hindu priestesses, Teacher is gaining some support from progressive institutions. Two years ago, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, a human-rights organization, started training women to become qazis, Islamic clerics who preach and mediate disputes within their communities.
At the organization’s school, women study constitutional law and Shariah, in part to sharpen their arguments against traditional abuses such as underage marriage and instant divorce. “We want to challenge all un-Islamic rituals that further patriarchy,” says Zakia Soman, a founder of the organization.
But the women who are breaking into their society’s traditional male domains insist they have more than scholarship on their side.
“Positive willpower is spirituality, which enables us to transcend petty differences and attachments of worldly life,” says Bhowmik. “It is about inspiring people to love without discrimination.”