April 11, 2018 10:58:51
Sailja Joshi is studying to be a female priest, which are relatively new in India and are still vastly outnumbered by men. (Siobhan Heanue)
At 72, Sailja Joshi has found her calling rather late in life.
After a lifetime spent caring for others at home, this grandmother wants to join the workforce.
She is studying to become a Hindu priest in a place where, usually, only men of the highest caste are considered eligible to be religious leaders.
“It gives me lot of mental peace and satisfaction when I recite religious hymns,” said Ms Joshi.
Female priests are a relatively new phenomenon in India, and they’re still vastly outnumbered by men.
Scholars say that unlike in the Catholic church or Islamic tradition, there’s nothing in Hindu holy books that bans women from becoming religious leaders.
But centuries of convention have dictated that only men are entitled to perform the most sacred religious rites, and most of them come from the highest Brahmin caste.
The first school to offer priestly scholarship to women opened in the 1980s in Pune, a progressive western Indian city where women flock to study.
Ms Joshi is the oldest of the current batch of students.
“Host families have more trust in female priests because they perform rituals sincerely,” she said.
“Male priests tend to cut short the rituals in order to finish a job quickly,” she said.
Priests perform rituals not only at temples, but also in family homes, usually earning a few dollars for each rite.
But most of the women here aren’t motivated by money.
Confidence to pursue their own interests
Manisha Shete is a Sanskrit scholar at a school in Pune, a progressive western Indian city where women flock to study. (ABC News: Siobhan Heanue)
Manisha Shete is a Sanskrit scholar in charge of the students.
She said most of her female students were housewives who had spent decades raising their families according to Indian custom.
Only now, in the ‘second innings’ of their lives, are they finding the confidence to step outside the home and pursue their own interests.
“Times are different,” she said, “and we are starting to create new traditions.”
‘I can give back to society’
Student Meera Holkar: “Why should men have all the knowledge?” (ABC News: Siobhan Heanue)
Meera Holkar, 58, said training to become a priest has been life changing.
“I am just a housewife. People say, ‘what can a housewife do except housework?'” she said.
“Well, I may not be a doctor or an engineer, but with all the training I am getting here I can give back to society.
“Why should men have all the knowledge?”
Elders often refuse to let women perform rites
Priti Chandrachur says women always do the preparation for Hindu prayers performed at home. (ABC News: Siobhan Heanue)
At 44, Priti Chandrachur is the baby among her classmates.
She grew up in the Jain tradition, but when she married a Hindu man she desired to know more about his religion.
She said when it came to the plethora of Hindu prayers performed within the family home throughout the year, it was always the woman who was expected to prepare the house and supply the many food items needed for the rituals.
“So why shouldn’t the woman be allowed to be a priest?” she said.
“There is no reason to say ‘no’,” said Dr Shete.
But she said elders often refused to let women perform rites.
Sunanda Joshi says in the past people refused to let her perform rites because she was a widow. (ABC News: Siobhan Heanue)
Sunanda Joshi, 74, who began working as a priest after her husband died, had that experience.
“In the beginning people refused to hire female priests because there were elders in the home who would object,” she said.
“But most of those opponents were females.
“Also, females from host families rejected me particularly because I’m a widow.”
Women considered impure while menstruating
Being a widow carries a stigma in parts of India. So does menstruation.
Women are considered impure when they are menstruating and told not to participate in — let alone lead — religious ceremonies.
Menstruation is often cited by critics as a reason why women shouldn’t be priests.
But plenty of young, urban Hindus are opting for female priests.
“Now it is a good experience,” said Ms Joshi.
“People do like female priests because they perform prayers and ritual in a peaceful and proper manner with making any mistakes.
“Women are sincere, that’s the difference.”
There is nothing in Hindu holy books that bans women like Sailja Joshi from becoming religious leaders. (ABC News: Siobhan Heanue)
April 11, 2018 07:39:32