When Debanjana Sarkar got married last year, she had deviated from several Bengali traditions even before her wedding day. For starters, she had chosen December 28 for her wedding date, which according to the Hindu lunar calendar, is not considered auspicious. “Traditionalists will say that Bengalis don’t get married during this month, but we wanted all our relatives and friends to come and this was a convenient date.” That was just the start of all the rigid wedding traditions that the 28-year-old was going to break.
Approximately a decade ago, when Sarkar was a college student, she had first seen a woman priest conduct wedding rituals, a profession that has traditionally been the domain of men, when her college professor Nandini Bhowmik sat down to conduct her own daughter’s wedding rituals.
“I had never seen a mother observe her daughter’s wedding, let alone perform the wedding rituals as a priest,” says Sarkar. Deeply inspired, Sarkar knew then that when she got married, she wanted a woman to conduct the ceremony. 60-year-old Bhowmik heads ‘Shubhamastu’, a four-member team of women priests in West Bengal who have been working for close to a decade, conducting rituals for everything from weddings to funerals and other religious festivals in between.
While women priests in India are not unusual, they are not the norm either. Now, the re-release of the Bengali film ‘Brahma Janen Gopon Kommoti’ scheduled for October 21, during Durga Puja, has put the spotlight back on the roles of women in religious ceremonies. The film starring Ritabhari Chakrabarty and Soham Majumdar had originally released on March 6 this year, but screenings were abruptly halted when the Indian government initiated a nationwide lockdown two weeks later to curb the coronavirus outbreak.
The film, inspired by Bhowmik’s life and work, tells the story of Chakraborty’s character Shabari, a woman priest and Sanskrit lecturer, who tries to navigate the challenges that life throws at her after her marriage into a conservative family that does not subscribe to her views on women’s roles and participation in religious practices. “Priesthood is a work of devotion. Contact with God can be established only if you’re pure in body and mind. But a woman’s body can never be pure, and so women do not have the right to work as a priest,” says one character in the film, referring to menstruation. It is really this dialogue that forms the premise of the film.
Menstrual untouchability and the Sabarimala temple controversy are some issues addressed in the film, but these are just the more visible examples. “Ancient scriptures don’t ban menstruating women from performing religious rituals,” explains Bhowmick, a guest lecturer at Jadavpur University’s department of Sanskrit. But over the centuries, the interpretation of the Vedas, the large body of ancient religious texts that form the basis of Hinduism, has been adulterated to such an extent that much of the interpretation of the original teachings and rituals have been completely altered, she says.
There are no curbs on women from becoming priests either. On the contrary, a closer reading of these ancient texts first written in the 15th century, indicate their presence and involvement in several rituals. Women philosophers and priests like Ghosha Kakshivati, Vak Ambhrini and Vishvavara Atreyi have also composed and contributed hymns pertaining to marriage in the Rigveda that continue to be used in rituals today.
It is not clear when the roles of women in Hindu religious practices changed, but researchers believe the change coincided with the imposition of the caste system and the introduction of the concept of purity based on this. Freedoms were severely curbed and women’s roles were relegated indoors, under the supervision and control of patriarchal institutions.
In the film, Shabari is not given away by her father in marriage. “We don’t find traces of ‘kanyadaan’ in the Rigveda. Women were not commodities to be given away”, explains Bhowmickk, who was consulted by the filmmakers during the film’s production.
Sarkar’s father did not give her away in marriage. Unlike the character of Shabari whose in-laws initially refuse to accept her because she hasn’t been given away in marriage, Sarkar’s husband and his family had no such reservations. “A girl is not a commodity to be given away,” she says. “I will remain my father’s daughter after marriage. After When I learned about what kanyadaan meant, I found the ritual insulting,” she says.
When Sarkar had expressed her desire to do things differently in her wedding, including replacing male priests with women, and altering many rituals to ensure that she was equal to her then-fiance in every way, nobody objected, not even the traditionalists in the family. But it wasn’t that there were no questions from people in the extended family distant relatives. Women priests at weddings are not commonplace in India and for many, they remain a novel sight. “My grandmother rationalised it this way: she prays at home, so why can’t women do it after learning and training on a larger platform?” says Sarkar.
Sarkar says her husband’s family also accepted these changes and was respectful of the couple’s desires. One of the changes that Bhowmik and her group have introduced to wedding ceremonies is when the groom fills the bride’s forehead with vermillion. Traditionally the woman only accepts the vermillion, but in Bhowmik’s interpretation of the rituals, she becomes an equal participant by putting some on the groom’s forehead in return.
Many rituals in Hindu marriages are patriarchal in form in part because the brides used to be very young, as old as five or six years in age, when they would get married, researchers explain. “In Bengali weddings, the bride is carried to the groom on a pidhi (wooden seat) because the girls were too young to do it themselves,” says Bhowmik. During the saptapadi, the groom leads the bride and helps her put khoi (puffed rice) into the fire because the boys were usually older back then. Although these days the bride and groom are adults, the rituals have rigidly remained the same.
At her in-laws’ home, Sarkar amended a post-marriage ritual too. In Bengali tradition, during the ‘bhaat-kapor’ ritual, the husband holds a plate of rice and a few clothes, touching it to his wife’s head, promising to take responsibility for her food and clothing for the rest of his life. “Since we are both independent professionals, we both participated in the ritual. In fact, it was my mother-in-law who suggested that we do this.”
“Nobody wants to accept unnecessary rituals. Back then, women didn’t have avenues for achieving independence. Now, so many women are earning more than men, so (the ‘bhaat-kapor’ ritual) has no relevance.” Neither the film and nor Bhowmik say rituals need to be completely done away with; it is really about encouraging people to make small changes to religious practices and beliefs to make them more equal and unbiased, she explains. Shabari’s character in the film puts it more succinctly: “My goal is to emancipate priesthood from the clutches of patriarchy.”
There are about a dozen formal institutions in India and many more informal schools scattered across the country that train women to become priests, but there is no data on the number of practising women priests. The Jnana Prabodhini in Pune is among the oldest, and has an entire department dedicated to training men and women in the profession. Dr. Manisha Shete, 51, who works as a priest and is the coordinator at the institute’s Sanskrit Sanskruti Sangshodhika department, established in 1975, that teaches purohitya as a subject, says the institution sets itself apart from the others because it takes in students regardless of caste — unusual because only Brahmins traditionally work in this profession.
When Shete had first started her training at Jnana Prabodhini in 2006, approximately 50 percent of the students were women. But over the past five years that has changed and more women have been coming in to learn, with 35 women presently studying at the institution. “Usually we have seen that unmarried women, widows, divorcees and infertile women were told that they couldn’t become priests. Traditionally women priests aren’t accepted, but these women are even less accepted. We encourage them to come to learn,” she says.
“A woman priest can do everything a man can. If we say women can do everything today, why can’t she pray during periods,” questions Shete. “People claim (menstrual untouchability) was for the woman’s benefit when they didn’t have access to privacy inside homes and facilities for hygiene, but periods don’t mean the woman is impure. Why can’t women engage in rituals during periods?”
The singling out of women’s bodies as the reason why they can’t become priests has been attributed and whittled down to their biological functions for decades, but Shete considers that to be a misinterpretation of the very texts that are cited in defence of these arguments. “We have prayers that say the body can be impure but if the individual remembers God, then they are pure inside and out.”
In 2000, when Professor Netai Chakraborty started a tol — an informal Sanskrit school — in Kolkata, he began encouraging women to come in to learn along with men. Back then, it was uncommon to see women undertake this training and Chakraborty had to turn to the women in his own family. “I started with recruiting my wife and other women in the neighbourhood, saying it was to teach them how to do their everyday prayers well. From there it expanded to other rituals and I tried to find ways to involve women in various religious practises to make it commonplace in people’s eyes.”
In the two decades that he has run the tol, some 30 to 35 women have studied under his tutelage. “Many male purohit cannot accept women priests and so women are hesitant to pursue it. Even my wife doesn’t have the courage to go out and practice. Hopefully this will change,” says Chakraborty.
Perhaps the change is already happening. Bhowmik’s colleague Ruma Roy, 59, has been noticing how more women have been asking for Shubhamastu to conduct their weddings. While Bhowmik and Roy, having had studied Sanskrit in college, chant hymns and mantras, the other two group members, Seymanti Banerjee and Paulomi Chakraborty, sing Rabindra Sangeet songs, selections from Rabindranath Tagore’s socially progressive compositions that are appropriate in the context of weddings. “We aren’t trained priests,” admits Roy, but she says the group gets more bookings than they can accommodate for various kinds of religious ceremonies, from births to funerals, because they don’t simply recite the hymns, but explain what each means in a relatable way.
“Sometimes we (women) have to take the first step. You can’t change a 1,000-year-old tradition in one day,” says Shete.
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